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Friday, November 19, 2004

A peaceful distraction

The past two days have been filled with "distractions" that have kept me from expanding on my points on the three 'military' stories highlighted a couple of posts earlier. [It is strange how quickly this 'blogging' task has become so central to my agenda that other (and far more interesting and important) things have now become 'distractions'.] It looks like it will be awhile before I get back to thoughts about Colin Powell and Fallujah.

In the meantime, more about one of those distractions.

Yesterday a number of us from Institute of Governance at Queen's University attended a lunch event featuring a 'lecture' by George Mitchell. Here is an individual of many roles and titles. He is introduced as "Senator" reflecting his years in Congress as the senator from Maine (the last couple as majority leader); but around Queen's he would be introduced as "Chancellor" (a figurehead position he has held here since 1999), and in the world of the Disney Corporation as "Mr. Chairman".

In Belfast and Northern Ireland, Mitchell is known more for what he accomplished than for any of his titles, for he is credited with having brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that proved to be a watershed point in the recent history of NI.

The 'lecture' itself was really little more than remarks sprinkled with anecdotes, but that was enough for the assembled group of 200 or so invited guests. There is a real 'connection' between Mitchell and the people of NI. As he tells it, when he came in 1994 at the request of Clinton to see what the US could do to help put an end to the violence associated with the Troubles, he expected to go home in a couple of weeks. The result was a five year stay in Belfast and intermittent extended visits ever since -- more to help sustain the implementation of the Agreement than to perform his symbolic duties as QUB chancellor.

I have been in Belfast since September 2003, but it is clear that what has taken place over the past five or six years has been transformational. The Agreement, even if not fully implemented (and even with major aspects of its governance provisions “in suspension”), has come to represent a pivotal historical point of change. At the surface level, at least, there are few signs of the tensions and divisions that made Northern Ireland a part of our daily news in the US for so many years. By spending all my time within the narrow corridor from the Botanic area of Belfast to City Centre, I managed to live here for several months without seeing a peace wall, ‘interface zone’ or any of the infamous murals that have now become a favorite photo op for Black Taxi tourists. Instead (and with the exception of the weather), I found this to be a charming place populated by wonderful people. (My line was, “I expected Beirut and got Boston”). I was soon brought back to reality when several new friends took me on a tour outside my little corridor -- and it was only then that the reality of the past became evident. This is a place filled with memories that will not disappear just because some peace agreement was brokered. That is the major theme that ran through Mitchell's talk, and it characterizes his approach to Northern Ireland and the other regions where he has tried to replicate his Good Friday efforts.

So while the 'lecture' was a disappointment for its substance, it was still of interest for a skeptic like me who every so often needs to be reminded that there are times when individuals (with a lot of help from their friends and enemies) can make a difference. Although Mitchell made clear in his remarks, it isn't an easy task.

Finally, two specific points made by Mitchell should be highlighted. One, slipped in during his remarks, highlighted the strong role played by women in the NI peace process. The second, in response to a question about the Middle East situation, spoke to the role that war weariness plays in the peace process. Obviously the points are related, and I assume (or at least hope) that someone is examining just what that relationship might be....

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