March 31, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A promise kept, as another Mitchell bears witness

George Mitchell has recalled the dramatic moment more times than he can count.

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Former Maine U.S. Sen. George Mitchell poses with his son, Andrew, during their trip to Northern Ireland last year.

BBC photo

SEE THE DOCUMENTARY

“GEORGE MITCHELL: My Journey’s End” will be shown at the Maine Irish Heritage Center at 34 Gray St. in Portland at 7 p.m. April 12 and 2 p.m. April 14. A $5 donation is requested. For more information go to maineirish.com.

Fifteen years ago next month, as leaders across the once-perilous political spectrum of Northern Ireland basked in the glow of the Good Friday Agreement, the former senator from Maine who brokered the pact made them a promise.

Recalling that his son, Andrew, had been born just six months earlier, Mitchell said he would one day return with his boy to watch the Northern Ireland Assembly go about the business of governing.

"There will be no talk of war, because the war will be long over," Mitchell predicted. "And no talk of peace, because peace will be taken for granted."

Fast-forward to "George Mitchell: My Journey's End," an hourlong BBC documentary that makes its U.S. debut April 12 at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

There, midway through the film, sits Mitchell in the all-but-empty visitors gallery as a government minister drones on to the Northern Ireland Assembly about a conference he just attended in Brussels. And there right next to Mitchell sits Andrew, now 15.

"I love Northern Ireland. And I love Andrew," said Mitchell, borrowing a line from the movie, in a telephone interview last week. "And I thought it would be good for the two of them to become acquainted."

It all started in late 2011 when Trevor Birney, director of the BBC in Northern Ireland, called Mitchell with a tantalizing question: That promise Mitchell made about his son all those years ago had he ever followed through with it?

No, Mitchell confessed, he hadn't.

Would he like to – with a film crew from the BBC tagging along?

Mitchell talked it over with his wife, Heather. Then he broached it with Andrew, who was not initially thrilled with the idea.

"Unlike his father, he doesn't care for the spotlight," chuckled Mitchell. "But nice guy that he is, he agreed to do it."

So in March of 2012, the family, which also includes 12-year-old Claire, headed across the Atlantic to witness firsthand the fruits of what Mitchell now calls "the most demanding role of my life."

The documentary's theme centers on one of Mitchell's signature moments during negotiations that dragged on, when they progressed at all, for two long years. So slow was the progress that when he returned home for the birth of his son on Oct. 16, 1997, Mitchell thought seriously about giving up on the talks altogether.

Just hours after Andrew's arrival, still at the hospital in New York City, Mitchell shared those misgivings with his wife.

"She urged me to go back," he recalled.

Mitchell, using a pay phone at the hospital, then called his assistant in Belfast. His simple question: How many children were born today, the same day as my son's birth, in Northern Ireland?

The answer was 61.

"Those children are entitled to the same chance in life that I want for my son," Mitchell told the hushed negotiators upon his return to Belfast a few days later. "Peace, political stability and reconciliation are not too much to ask for. They are the minimum that a decent civilized society provides."

Documentary producer Michael Fanning tracked down three of those children. And over three days, the Mitchells visited them and their families – the Robinsons in County Fermanagh, the Bests in County Down and the Stevensons in County Derry.

In each vignette, the grown-ups chat about what has changed – and what hasn't – since The Troubles left Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants alike living in constant fear of assassinations, bombings and other tit-for-tat acts of terror.

Yes, they tell him, the violence is all but gone. But the neighborhood-by-neighborhood segregation, rooted in personal loss and still-smoldering anger, remains.

(Continued on page 2)

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