My Interview with Senator George Mitchell
Negotiation and Consensus Building in Northern Ireland
Louis Carter, founding CEO of Best Practice Institute Interviews Senator George Mitchell on Negotiation and Consensus Building
(This interview was originally conducted in 2000 at the Global Institute for Leadership Development – and its timeless and powerful teachings are equally as relevant to current events and the field of HR and Talent)
Louis Carter (LC): Mr. Mitchell, thank you again, for giving me the time to interview you — it’s an honor to be speaking with you today. Your lessons and advice are particularly well-suited for leaders of change today, because of your record of building consensus in Northern Ireland, Iran-Contra Affair, your work as chairman of the Sharm el-Sheikh International Fact-Finding Committee. And I’d like to talk to you more about these incidents — these events — and also ask you some more general questions. I’m going to start with the general questions: What do you think defines you as a leader? And who helped you define this definition?
George Mitchell (GM): It’s always difficult for anyone to engage in self-evaluation, and I’ve always felt that it’s best left to others to make such judgments. I can tell you, though, about how I learned through experience to try to bring people together. My first true mentor was my predecessor in the Senate — Senator Edmund Muskie — who was certainly one of the great legislators of our time, and beyond any doubt the greatest environmental legislator of our time. When I was involved with Senator Muskie, he personally led the effort to write and enact into law the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. It’s difficult to recall the context of the times, but a mere 30 years ago, there was no national legislation preventing pollution, as a consequence of which, 85 percent of the waterways in the United States were polluted, and the skies were heavily polluted. It took a series of dramatic consequences, including some deaths to rouse the nation into action, and I saw over a period of years how Senator Muskie brought conflicting parties together, created consensus among widely-divergent views with a great deal of patience, but also firm leadership. And it was my first exposure, directly and personally, to that kind of effort, and what I recall most was his patience, and his perseverance, how he always let everyone have their say; he did not cut people off, even though they were contradicting or even attacking him. And he persevered through extremely difficult times, through a great deal of skepticism and outright opposition by many in the country. And so, in terms of my own experience in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, in other areas, I have consciously followed the example that Senator Muskie set for me: Patience and perseverance, and always treat people with respect, and let them have their say. You can’t get everyone to agree with you, but I believe you can, by conducting yourself properly, get everyone to agree that the process by which a decision was reached was a fair and open one. And that, I think, is critical to the ultimate acceptance of any agreement, particularly in divided societies, and conflict situations.
LC: It’s actually a good point to be talking about here — your experiences in Northern Ireland, in particular, and what I’d like to understand more about is your learning and leadership lessons in Northern Ireland that literally ended decades of conflict and blood shed, and has, I believe, brought you international appreciation, saving the lives of millions. Could you tell me more about what enabled you to bring about consensus, to build consensus in such a volatile environment, perhaps talking about one or two of the key milestones during your negotiations.
GM: Well, the first lesson was that it is possible for the United States to play a constructive role in ending conflict without directly engaging in conflict, ourselves. Each situation is different, so I do not suggest that what worked in Northern Ireland would work elsewhere, but I think it notable that we helped bring about an end to a conflict that had gone on for decades without firing a single bullet or spending any money, because we led by example, and we had a president in Bill Clinton, who was tenacious in persevering, despite repeated setbacks, and despite the unwillingness of any of his predecessors to directly involve themselves in efforts to end this conflict. When I began the negotiations, I had already been involved in Northern Ireland for a couple of years; indeed, it was that prior experience that led the British government and the Irish government to ask me to serve as the independent chairman of the negotiations. But on the very first day, I said to the delegates that I do not come with an American plan. There is no Clinton plan; there is no Mitchell plan. I am here to try to help you reach agreement, and any agreement that ultimately is reached, will be the product of your efforts. That established the beginnings of a trusted relationship that enabled me in the end to move from an independent arbiter, that is someone presiding over proceedings, to someone who actually played an active role in mediation, that is, in trying to persuade the parties to move toward a common ground, which they ultimately did. And I think that’s critical. I also directly followed Senator Muskie’s example by saying to the delegates on the first day that I would not cut anybody off. I told them I’m the product of the United States Senate, which has the rule of unlimited debate. I’ve listened to 20-hour speeches, to 15-hour speeches, to 8-hour speeches. There’s nothing any of you guys can say that’s going to upset me. And I carried through on that; I must say, it was very difficult. The principle of negotiations lasted for two years; I presided over three different sets of discussions, which in the aggregate lasted about three years. And so, I spend thousands of hours listening to debate that was tedious, repetitious, sometimes uninformative, but it was very important that everyone felt they had their say. No one could, or ever did say that they didn’t have the opportunity to get their point of view across. And while there was disagreement, and continues to be disagreement in Northern Ireland — the peace agreement has not been fully implemented — the war did end, and the glass half full argument, now, is that the war is over. No one is dying in conflict. The glass half empty argument is that the agreement has not been fully implemented; a stable peace is not assured, and reconciliation remains a long way off. So, we’ve made a lot of progress, but much remains to be done — all, I think, resulting in part from the decision by President Clinton to directly involve the United States in a positive way, not an overbearing, or a domineering way, and not a unilateral way. We respectfully recognized and observed the primary role of the British government and the Irish government — two very close allies, but we made a constructive contribution.
LC: Actually, that brings me to some questions I have around the difficulty, and how you saw the event unwinding? Was there anything, in particular, during your journey where you — you just mentioned it was very difficult. There was times when it was tedious, repetitious, and uninformative. What do you mean — could you tell me more about that? Could you tell me more about those incidents, and how they unraveled?
GM: First, I should point out that there were twelve parties to the negotiations: The British government, the Irish government, and ten political parties in Northern Ireland. At no time — never once for even a single moment — was I able to get all twelve in the same room at the same time. They never had a meeting in which everyone participated, because parties were constantly walking out; some parties were expelled for a violation of the cease fire, or the rules that governed the discussions. It was extremely contentious. Remember, these were people who had been engaged directly in conflict for the previous 30 years. Some of the members of the delegations to the talks had themselves been the target of assassination attempts; several had been shot and wounded; several of them had been convicted of assassination attempts, or bombing attempts, or otherwise, and had served lengthy prison terms. So, to get them into a room, and to talk seriously and respectfully was an extremely difficult task. I was greatly helped at the beginning by the fact that I had served as a federal judge, and I had prior experience at trying to establish a framework within which reasonable and civil discussion could take place, but this was unlike any civil or criminal trial in the United States, because we didn’t have any rules at the outset, and we took three months to establish a set of rules, which themselves were very contentious. So, it was difficult, at first, but although at the time I was deeply discouraged by how long the process was taking — I was away from my family, from my work for very long periods of time, and felt very discouraged. In retrospect, it was helpful to me, because I had to make each day dozens of decisions that the delegates observed that I was doing so in a fair and impartial way, and I could sense, and they confided to me that their trust in me grew, which helped me at the end, when I needed their full trust to be able to put the process into the next stage of getting an agreement. So, it was tough, but the arguments for most of the time, really for the first — almost the first two years — were largely repetitious, and it was to a great extent non-productive. These talks were held in a British government compound — office compound — just outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland. There was a great deal of press at first, so right outside the gate there were television crews, and reporters from newspapers, from all over Europe and the world, and every morning the delegates would walk in, and the press would ask them questions, and of course doing their job, trying to pin the delegates down to specific positions. Well, you would never agree to this would you? What do you respond to that fellow’s criticism, and then each morning almost without exception, we would begin with one side holding up a newspaper and saying, “Well, look — hear what they said to the press last night, or in the television interview.” The other side would hold up the other newspaper, and say, “Well, now look here what they said.” So, it was extremely difficult to get them to a discussion of the issues, because they were fighting an ongoing — there was a war going on, and there was a political contest going on, both between the two communities, and within each community, as political parties vied for power within their communities. That’s really why it took so long. It took a long time for people to get accustomed to the notion of having a positive and civil debate, of even listening to the other side, let alone giving consideration to their points of view. But in the end, they came around, because of what they recognized, and what they told me repeatedly during that period of years. And that is that if these talks failed, the war would resume at a higher level of death and destruction than ever previously existed. And they didn’t want the talks to fail, even though they didn’t want to budge off their positions. Each side wanted the other to compromise, but not themselves. But in the end, the possibility of a resumption of full-scale war with the shedding of blood on a level higher than had previously existed was a huge incentive for them to move toward an agreement, and what I did was to repeat to them what they had said to me. I constantly said to delegates — in private, and in large general sessions — “This is what you have said to me, so I’m asking you to act in accordance with your own positions.” And that was helpful in moving them toward an agreement.
LC: Fear took on a very important role in the resolution of the conflict there?
GM: Fear of the alternative of a resumption of full-scale conflict, yes.
LC: In your one-on-one talks with individuals, as well as your group talks, what specifically did you do in terms of tactics to help them come to resolution? It sounds like because you had a very closed — you had two closed systems you were working with, what exactly could you do in those one-on-one talks? What types of things might you say, or did you say?
GM: Well, the talks occurred at several levels: There were general sessions with twelve parties each with half a dozen people there; you’re talking about 60 or 70 people in the room, microphones, government officials taking notes, and recording what occurred. Then, there were smaller group discussions in private, no microphones, just the leaders of the parties, maybe one or two from each party, no note-takers. And then, there were many examples of what has come to be known as “shuttle diplomacy,” where one group wouldn’t talk to the other for a variety of reasons, and so they would be in one building, and I was in another, and I would go back and forth between the two, or in the same building in different rooms, and I would go back and forth between the two. And I tried hard to strike a proper balance between not imposing my views on them; I couldn’t have done that anyway, and encouraging them to move toward a compromise. It was very difficult for them. It still is for them to consider compromise. It’s not inherent in their political process, or in their society. There’s a high level of rigidity, and any kind of compromise tends to be associated with weakness, or lack of conviction. If you’re willing to compromise on anything, you can be labeled as selling out, or lacking in conviction, and there is a lot of — there was a widespread belief in what we used to call the “Domino Theory” over here. You recall it came into vogue in the Vietnam War: If Vietnam falls, all the other countries of Asia will fall to Communism like dominoes. The Northern Ireland version was, “Well, if I compromise on this, then that’s going to lead to an erosion of my position, and we’ll end up losing everything.” And it was extremely difficult to get them to make even the slightest movement. What happened was that after two years of listening to them, I knew their positions completely, inside out, I knew what they stood for publicly; I knew what their private thoughts were, and I tried to put together a document, which ultimately became the peace agreement, that reflected the principal concerns of each side; that is to say, everybody gained something, and therefore, were willing to accept the other side getting something, provided they got their — what they thought was a satisfactory resolution. That was very hard to do, and it was obviously imperfect, as all of these efforts are, but it was enough to get the agreement.
LC: So, really it was your role of trust, your willingness to be flexible, neutral in the moment, to respect both sides, and adequately represent all parties that enabled you to get to the agreement?
GM: That was a big part of it. When I initially was asked to serve as chairman by the governments, some of the parties objected. They felt that I could not be objective, and there was some difficulty associated with my becoming chairman. Gradually over time, that tended to fade, and I had been in elective politics; I knew what elective politicians face, the tensions they confront, and how they handle them, and so because I was not involved in any political contest at the time, I was able to absorb a lot of the criticism that might otherwise have gone to them, and I think they appreciated that. Whenever things got really bad, the British and Irish governments would ask me to hold a press conference to try to keep things together to put the best face on things, and I think that was also very helpful in establishing the bond of trust for the political leaders.
LC: I’d really like to get a better sense of Senator George Mitchell. There’s just so much I can get over the phone. I know I’ve read tremendous amounts of glowing endorsements (inaudible words). You gained enormous bipartisan respect. It’s been said there’s not a man, woman, or child in the Capitol who does not trust George Mitchell. And the way I’d like to get the sense of who you are — your person — is I think the best way to get at this is in your book, “Making Peace,” you refer to the moment on Good Friday on April 10th, 1998 after the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland ended a success, and you said: “I took a deep breath, and felt tears welling in my eyes. I had to sit down.”
GM: It was extremely emotional. For one thing, we were all physically exhausted. We had been in negotiations off and on for two years, and the last two weeks, because I set a firm, unbreakable deadline, the last two weeks were extremely intense, and the last few days round the clock. So, I hadn’t slept in a couple of days. I kept at it, and kept pushing and the tension grew, because we didn’t know if it would fall apart at the last moment. It was very difficult for some of these political leaders to agree to the compromises that were in the agreement, and the negotiations went right down to the wire. I announced the agreement at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I didn’t know until quarter of five, whether there would be an agreement. In fact, when the last political leader called me, as I described in my book, I immediately called a general session, because one thing I’d learned in the Senate, that when you’ve got the votes, you should vote, and a delay can’t help you. And so, it was very tense, and emotional, and I had become, by then — and remain to this day — deeply emotionally involved with the people of Northern Ireland. I spent years there. I’ve made life-long friends. I continue to go there on a regular basis. I serve now as the chancellor of the Queen’s University of Northern Ireland, the largest institution of higher learning in Northern Ireland, and I’m chairman of a foundation there. And I have many friends there, and you can’t live among people, particular people who are as warm, and energetic, and friendly as the people of Northern Ireland, without getting emotionally involved. And so, I was emotional. And tears did flow, because I felt that we had accomplished something that everyone had judged impossible, just a week before we got the agreement, newspapers published a poll, which reported that 83 percent of the public felt that no agreement was possible; only 7 percent felt an agreement was possible, and 10 percent had no opinion. (Having gotten) in those circumstances was deeply, deeply satisfying.
LC: It’s interesting. I’m listening to how you achieved this kind of result under — with such enormous challenges, and I think to myself, what role did deep appreciation and respect, as well as I know you didn’t take sides — I realize you said this — or religious sides for that matter, because this was a religious war — what role does spirituality, religion, the deep respect you had for the people of Northern Ireland, play in the success that you had in these negotiations?
GM: It was a very important role, but one of the great ironies of human history is that religion has been such a powerful, positive force for human beings, throughout most of recorded history, and exerts a profound influence in our society, and everyone today, but also has contributed to harsh and destructive conflict throughout history, including up to the very moment, not just in Northern Ireland, but in many other parts of the world, and indeed represents a significant political factor in our own country today. But I did not attempt to overtly make my religious belief, or the religious beliefs of any of the participants a factor in these discussions. They were all present, and they did generate discussion, but it was not something that I raised overtly, or said here’s what I do, or here’s what I believe. What I think is the best of religion is when people have a deep faith, and they act in the right way in accordance with that faith. And by act, I don’t mean boasting about it, or bragging about it, because Christ told us that that is not the right way to have and express and live by one’s faith.
LC: It’s actually — it brings me to another topic of the Mitchell Report, and with — through President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Council, Yasser Arafat, you agreed to serve as chairman of Sharm el-Sheikh International Fact-Finding Committee in 2000 to examine the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and came up with the Mitchell Report, and in particular, I’m wondering how, today, now in 2004, how some of the tenets of the Mitchell Report and the work that you did in Israel, can be better implemented? What do you think you can do as a leader today to — and with all of your experiences in past religious conflicts, and political conflicts to enable your Mitchell Report, so that there can be an end to the conflict, and it can — that it can better enable consensus-building in the Gulf, and help also our current leadership, and hopefully, future leadership to enable the end of conflict?
GM: The recommendations in our report remain largely relevant. They were almost entirely incorporated into what has come to be known as the “Road Map” — the plan advanced by President Bush, the UN, the European Union, and Russia last year. But unfortunately, none have been implemented. Ironically, both the government of Israel, and the Palestinian authority, accepted the recommendations of our report — to my knowledge, the only report that they have accepted all of the recommendations of prior to the Road Map. The problem was nobody did anything about it. President Bush said he endorsed the report, and he has repeatedly endorsed it on many, many occasions, but these peace agreements are not self-implementing. It’s very hard to get an agreement; it’s even harder to gain implementation of an agreement. The implementation requires patient, persevering effort over a long period of time, and that’s what has been absent. It’s one thing to say here’s a plan, and it’s a great plan, and everybody agrees on it, so go ahead and do it, but then, if you don’t have the follow-through, the plan is not implemented.
LC: Should we talk a little bit about follow-through? I’d like to know if from your point of view, what do you look for in your leadership team for that kind of follow-through?
GM: There must be patient, persevering, painstaking follow-through, or all of the prior effort is for naught. I can’t emphasize that enough, particularly in the area of conflict resolution. Peace agreements are inevitably political compromises. They must reflect the realities that exist in that society at that time. And if you had people killing each other for long periods of time —
If you’ve had people killing each other over long periods of time, it is not feasible to expect that a peace agreement is going to dissipate all of the ill will, the mistrust, the hatred that has accumulated over a long period of time, and in most of these cases for centuries. So, what you must recognize, is that in these situations, a peace agreement is a positive step toward an objective, but does not buy itself guarantee peach, stability, or reconciliation. And that’s what’s needed in the Middle East. There has to be a major American initiative that is patient, persevering, and long-term, that says to the participants on both sides just what I said on the first day in Northern Ireland: We’re here. We’re going to stay here until we get the job done. We’re not going to be deterred by setbacks, and there setbacks. There were assassinations; there were bombings; there were determined efforts to destroy the process, and to terminate the negotiations, and you have to stay it. So, I think if there’s any one message I can give, it is that negotiation and compromise and agreement must be seen as important steps towards the objectives, but are not the objectives, themselves. And they have to be pursued with unrelenting vigor and attention — painstakingly to detail after the agreement is reached with as much, if not more, intensity than prior to the time when an agreement is reached.