AU: Hello and welcome — you’re listening to a podcast brought to you by Northern Slant, an online publication that seeks to showcase a new, diverse Northern Ireland. I’m Alina Utrata — and welcome to our inaugural audio episode.
For our first podcast, Northern Slant contributor and Queen’s University PhD student Matt O’Neill sat down with Senator George J Mitchell — one of the chairmen of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. Matt asked Senator Mitchell about the role of media in conflict communities, what he thinks about Northern Irish politics today, and advice he would give to young people. Let’s take a listen.
MO: People here often comment how engaged you remain in Northern Ireland. Its clear that you have a real and vested interest in Northern Ireland and it has become a part of your life. Why do you think its important for you to stay so engaged? And what role do you feel you have now post-GFA?
GM: Well I have no formal role but I have a huge personal and emotional interest in the place of Northern Ireland the people of Northern Ireland. When President Clinton first asked me to come to Northern Ireland he said it would be for a few months. And as often happens in life, one thing led to another and a few months became five years. . . .
So for a fifteen-year period of my life I came to Northern Ireland quite regularly and I have continued to do so even after I left my position at Queen’s as often as I can, consistent with my other obligations because I like the people, I like the place. I felt that it’s important not just for people in Northern Ireland but for people around the world to see that a so called intractable conflict can be resolved. I said earlier today that I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended and its good to see that at least in this place that proved to be true; and I hope in some way it can serve as inspiration to people in other conflict situations.
My father’s parents were born in Ireland, emigrated to the US. But my father never knew his parents. He was orphaned at a very early age. And after several years was adopted by an elderly couple and so I never heard my father say the world Ireland. His opportunities were limited, he had very little education and worked primarily at a janitor at a local school. So while I have Irish heritage I didn’t really have any sense of it until I came here. One of the reasons I was so grateful for being able to do this is that I did acquire a sense of my father’s heritage, but it really had no effect on whether I would do it or not do it — that I could help, that’s what mattered. And if this had been in Latin America or East Asia, it would have been the same thing for me.
MO: In your keynote speech you talked about the challenges we face from Brexit to the collapse of Stormont. What do you most worry about for the future of Northern Ireland?
GM: Life is change. It’s true of every human being, it’s true of you and I and it’s true of every human society and every human institution. There never comes a time when you can say, this is it — for all time. The Good Friday Agreement was a political compromise. The best that could be obtained at the time by a group of human beings who had spent their entire lives in conflict. It didn’t purport to resolve every issue nor those that it dealt with did it purport to resolve them for all time.
I said on the day the agreement was reached that it was historic, which it was. But I also said that by itself the agreement did not guarantee peace, or political stability, or reconciliation or prosperity. Those would require further decisions in the future by other leaders and that’s what’s happened. No one should be surprised about that. The challenge is to initiate a process that keeps moving forward.
Governing is essentially solving problems, making decisions. When people seek public office, that’s what they are seeking to do, that’s what they are offering to do, and that’s what they should do. I don’t live here now. I’m not immersed in the day-to-day details as I was for the five years that I spent here between 1995 and 1999. So I don’t purport to say, well you should adopt this sentence or that provision. All I’m saying is that the current leaders should have the same strength, the same determination, the same willingness to compromise that the leaders had in 1998 when the issues were many more, and much more complex, and much more difficult. And they brought this process forward.
It’s very hard for me to convey the difference in my mind, between Northern Ireland 25 years ago and what it is today. You’re young people, you’ve only seen what exists now. But this is unrecognizable and its such a dramatic improvement and I am absolutely certain that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland don’t want to go back to those days. So the challenge is to try to resolve the current issues.
There will be other issues, next year, the year after. No-one can think or expect that a democratic society is going to proceed without differences. Democracy involves differences. We insist on a free and open press, we have opposition parties, we believe that out of that process comes the close approximation to truth and to the right way forward that human beings can achieve. It’s critically important that the leaders understand that solving particular issues is crucial. But underlying it all is keeping the government going. You can’t solve the issues if you’re not governing. So I hope very much that the leaders of the UK, Ireland, the political parties in Northern Ireland will refocus on resolving the current stalemate and getting the government up and running again here.
MO: I was listening to a blog you did for Bloomberg and the question came up about media. And you said media has changed over your lifetime and technology has given people the space to talk in their own echo chambers. During the peace negotiations leading up to the GFA, you would have a lot of people leaking to the media. Did you feel the media played a helpful role during the negotiations? Or did you ever wish that politicians would act differently with media or present a different narrative of what was going on inside the castle buildings?
GM: Well, all of our institutions are there for a reason and provide a benefit overall to society. But very few human activities are all good or all bad. There generally is a mixed result. And a free and open press — I think it’s widely accepted that it’s critical to the effective functioning of democracy. At the same time, there come times when problems are created. No one would suggest that every single discussion among government officials must be conducted in public. That’s accepting the reality that you have to have some private conversations. Most states have laws that govern, Florida calls it a sunshine law, in which they specifically describe the type and nature of meetings that must be public and the inference of that is that everything else can be private.
There were times during the peace negotiations that disclosures to the press made the situation more difficult. We were in a British government building that had been converted into a venue for the negotiations and it was surrounded by a fence and heavily guarded so we were safe.
But in the fence there was a single gate where we walked or drove through every morning and left every night. And just outside the gate there was a press encampment. So every person that walked in walked through a group of reporters. Now, they’re all politicians, they’re all elected. That was one of the prerequisites of being in the talks, you had to get elected to the forum to be eligible to enter the talks. So they’re all mindful of their constituencies. And reporters there, every day would say, well look what your opponent said last night or what’s in this morning’s paper, you’d never agree to that, would you? And it made it more difficult. That’s just the reality. But no one ever suggested, and I certainly never would have countenanced, completely excluding the press, prohibiting any questions. You have to try and find the right balance in any situation. And I think intuitively most people understand that.
There’s a constant challenge and ebb and flow in every democratic society for finding the right balance. How much is proper access for the press? How much privacy can political leaders want or expect? You read in the US a lot about executive privilege -what conversations is the president entitled to have in private and not disclose to others. And there isn’t any single easy line to be drawn — its a case by case, push and pull analysis as to what’s best.
So I think the best way to state it is that a free and open press is indispensable to the effective processing of democracy, but it cannot be taken to the illogical conclusion that every single thing must be open to the press. And the judgement as to where the line lies is very fact specific in each circumstance.
MO: When it comes to the societies in conflict or post-conflict, do you think the media should take any special considerations into how they tell the story?
GM: Well, I think the functioning of the press depends in part on the integrity of the people involved and their ability to set aside their personal beliefs and convictions and present their beliefs and issues in a very open manner. There is a dispute about how well or how effectively that’s done. It’s especially complicated in the age of social media and the communications technology that have occurred.
In my lifetime, earlier in my career, I mean there was a much greater emphasis on corroboration, verifications, checking to see whether things are true or untrue before they were placed in the public mainstream. That’s pretty much vanished now and everything gets onto the internet and its extremely difficult for an individual to make a judgment about what it or is not true, or what can or cannot be believed and it provides the benefit of instantaneous and much broader distribution of views which is a good thing. And it presents the disadvantage of enabling and permitting the dissemination of much information that is untrue. And the individual is left to his or her own devices as to try to evaluate what is or is not true and that is not easy to do.
You know, science is neutral. This cellphone here has dramatically changed the rhythm and pattern of life for almost all human beings. Within your lifetimes, this didn’t exist when any of you were born. And now just think about it — you check it every morning, you check it every night and depending on your level of addiction you check it many times during the day. It’s literally changed the daily patterns of life for all human beings. And it provides enormous benefits, but terrorists use cell phones for their purposes. So science can be deployed for beneficial or destructive purposes. And the answer is not to try to end science, the answer is to try harder to direct the results into the positive side of society.
MO: What are your hopes for young people in Northern Ireland and how do you think they could inherit the GFA for themselves or build upon that?
GM: Well, I think the same is true of young people everywhere. How do you find your way in society? How do you live a life that is meaningful in an individual sense and in a community sense? I don’t think Northern Ireland is especially different from other places in that regard.
I have a large scholarship program back in the US and each year I meet with the 140 new scholarship recipients in Maine and I tell them no one should be embarrassed or feel its inappropriate to want to get out and earn more and get income to support yourself or your family in an appropriate way. And there is in most people an innate drive to succeed, to however one defines success — fame, fortune, recognition, so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s a good thing, it represents ambition that drives people to do things.
But what I tell them and what I say to you is that you go through life and the more successful you are in that traditional way, the more you realize that there’s more to life than that. Real fulfillment comes when you can be part of something larger than your self interest and you engage in something that provides a benefit to others than yourself. And there’s no limit on the number of ways that can be done — politics is one way, but it is by no means the only way. So I encourage people to work hard, succeed in life, but also reserve some portion of their life’s effort and energy to find a meaningful objective that will satisfy that longing we all have to do something good and beneficial.
AU: You have been listening to a podcast brought to you by Northern Slant. Northern Slant is an online publication dedicated to to showcasing a new, diverse Northern Ireland and re-setting how we tell Northern Ireland’s story. You can read more online at NorthernSlant.com, tweet at us on Twitter @NorthernSlant or like our Facebook page.
This podcast was produced by Matt O’Neill, Alina Utrata and Keysha Jamie Orona. A special thank you to Senator George Mitchell for talking to us.
To hear more from Northern Slant, subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts.