Irish Peace Talks: Mediator who toiled to give peace a chance

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WHEN George Mitchell retired from the Senate in 1994 and married Heather MacLachlan, a 25-year-old Canadian sports promoter, he told her he was giving up politics, writes Kate Watson-Smyth. Then President Clinton asked him to spend six months organising a trade and investment conference in Washington to bolster the previous IRA ceasefire.

"I thought it would involve a couple of trips over here, meetings with various officials, staging the conference and that would be it," he said. But he was asked to stay on to cover Clinton's visit to Ireland in 1995, then London and Dublin asked him to tackle the issue of paramilitary decommissioning and before he knew it he was chairman of the talks.

"As with almost all things in life," he said, "hindsight is a great teacher." So, at 64,Mitchell is juggling the talks, law firms in Washington DC and Maine, trips to Bosnia for the International Crisis Group and directorships of Walt Disney, Xerox and Federal Express, as well as family life with his second wife and their baby.

After leaving the Senate he could have become a Supreme Court Judge, Secretary of State, or - best of all for a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan - America's $1m-a year baseball commissioner. Instead he has devoted himself, for no salary, to peace in Northern Ireland. He is a Catholic, an associate of Clinton and friend of the Kennedys. Unionists said he would hold a bias in favour of Catholic nationalists. But his Catholicism is of the Lebanese Maronite rather than the Roman variety. His paternal grandparents, the Kilroys, arrived from Ireland in 1904. Their son, Mitchell's father, was given away to an orphanage aged three, picked out from a line-up after Mass one Sunday in a Maronite church. Joseph Kilroy was renamed George Mitchell and married a Lebanese, Mintaha Saad, who later became Mary. George senior was a janitor, his wife worked nights in one of the wool mills and they lived between a polluted river and a railway in Waterville, Maine.

The children attended a Lebanese Maronite school and went to the Maronite church. After law school Mitchell joined the staff of Edmund Muskie, a Maine senator, and in 1974, having run unsuccessfully for Maine governor, began practising law, and was made a district judge in 1979.

In 1980 Muskie was appointed Secretary of State and named Mitchell to fill his Senate seat. His relentless hard work had propelled him to the Senate leadership by 1988.

When Clinton was elected in 1992, Mitchell had the chance to enact progressive legislation for the first time in his career but six years later he announced his retirement, saying he wanted to "consider other challenges". He turned down the Supreme Court job and announced his engagement to Ms MacLachlan. Their son, Andrew, was born nearly six months ago and therein lies to clue to his commitment to the peace process.

When Andrew was born, on 16 October, Mitchell was in Belfast. He asked his staff to find out how many babies were born in Northern Ireland that day. There were 61. He said: "I believe they are entitled to the same chance in life that I want for my son. Peace, political stability and reconciliation are not too much to ask for. They are a minimum that a decent civilised society provides."


Behind the shy exterior, there lies a man of steel. Take the day during the Iran-Contra hearings when he chided Oliver North for pleading to Congress not to abandon the Nicaraguan Contras "for the love of God and for the love of country". The senator replied: "Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics. And in America, disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of a lack of patriotism."


When his Lebanese mother thought that George, aged eight, was not growing fast enough she reached for goat's milk, aremedy from the old country. He grew two inches in a year.


Despite his Lebanese blood, Mitchell has always thought of himself as just "plain American". "I am not an Irish-American," he has said. "I am not a Lebanese-American. I am not a hyphenated American."


Harold Pachios, a lawyer and lifetime friend of Mitchell, points to the one widely acknowledged quality in the former senator: his ability to be impartial.

"There isn't another human being I know who is less likely to be moved by passion [or] prejudice.

``He is not factional in his approach to anything."