Devolution for Ulster: Mitchell in high demand as peace process role ends

Devolution for Ulster
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The Independent Online
WHEN HE steps away from the Northern Ireland peace process, George Mitchell will find that there is a nice warm office waiting for him in McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House. The law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, the most successful lobbying group in town, will be glad to have back the full attention of one of its most lucrative, effective and popular partners.

But there is also another office, which is just as comfortable, around the corner on K Street, should he want it, with the International Crisis Group, a private-sector group specialising in conflict resolution. At various times in the last few years, Mr Mitchell has also had discreet discussions over the elegant desks on C Street, at the State Department; in the Supreme Court, at the other end of the Mall; and in the neoclassical building in the centre of the city, as head of President Bill Clinton's legal team during impeachment.

Mr Mitchell has no shortage of options. Since he left elected politics in 1994, the urbane former Democratic senator has passed behind a veil and become one of a select few who possess real power in Washington at the same time as holding no office. He is regarded as one of the "Wise Men" of the age, heir to a tradition of powerbrokers, the true establishment of a city which reveres influence above all else.

He was one of three candidates for Secretary of State in 1996, alongside Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright, who won the contest. He was offered a seat on the Supreme Court, but declined it. He worked on a special investigation into baseball, and another into the Olympic Games. He is Chancellor of Queen's University and chairman of a reconciliation fund, but also on the board of Disney and an adviser to Thames Water.

Mr Mitchell has displayed a talent for amassing influence but also making money, which is the envy of many other retired politicians. At Verner, Liipfert, he brought in $10m in 1998, helping to make it the highest billing lobbyist in Washington. As part of a team which includes former senator Robert Dole, and the venerable Harry McPherson, one of the powerbroking giants of Washington, Mr Mitchell has flourished. In the course of this, however, he has worked for the tobacco industry, which has not endeared him to everyone in the Democratic party.

There is, inevitably, speculation that he might hold office of some sort if the Democrats regain the White House next year. He has been mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate for Al Gore, but Mr Gore would gain little electorally by bringing in someone whose home state, Maine, has so few electoral college votes. Mr Gore is also said to have preferred Mr Holbrooke over Mr Mitchell for the State Department, implying that he is unlikely to get that either in a new administration. Attorney General is a possibility, and he may also still be interested in the Supreme Court, though his lobbying work may militate against both.

He has also said he wants to spend more time with his second wife, nearly 30 years his junior, and his young son, born during the Irish negotiations.

Many US ambassadorial positions require not just political weight and diplomatic skill but also money, and Mr Mitchell is eminently suited for the position. London or Dublin may suit him very nicely at some stage, though perhaps - with the money piling up so nicely - that could wait a few years.