Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
When then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that he would not seek re-election in 1995, it came as a surprise to many, not least his Maine constituents who had given him 80 percent of the votes in the 1988 election. When the then 61 year-old senator turned down a Supreme Court nomination to the great disappointment of President Clinton, there was speculation about him becoming the Commissioner of Baseball. No one was more surprised than the Irish when he was named as the president’s economic advisor on Ireland, and following on, in January 1995, it was announced that Mitchell would chair the Northern Ireland peace negotiations.
Mitchell went on to play a pivotal role in the peace process, helping to negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But all that would be in the future. When he spoke to Patricia Harty in 1995, it was shortly after his appointment as the economic advisor. He was hopeful of change, saying, “I really believe this is a moment of historic opportunity that could be the framework for life in Ireland for not just a few years but decades, or perhaps even centuries.”
Patricia Harty: What made you consider this unpaid position [economic advisor] when many jobs were open to you?
George Mitchell: It was a combination of things. First, I admire President Clinton and I wanted to be helpful to him and his administration. Second, it gave me the opportunity to remain active in public policy matters. When I decided not to seek re-election to the Senate, I made it clear that I was not leaving out of dissatisfaction for public service, in fact I love public service, but rather I was leaving because my own concept of public service was that I should serve in the Senate only for a limited period and not attempt to make it a lifetime decision. Third, and finally, the opportunity to serve Ireland, the place of my father’s heritage, was very attractive to me.
Somebody asked me recently why was I spending so much time at this since it was an unpaid position. I said it’s a labor of love, and I meant it. I truly enjoy it. I admire the participants, and I think that it’s an opportunity, for me as an Irish-American, to play a role in what I think is an historic event. I have enjoyed reading many books on English and Irish history in preparation for this assignment and I really believe this is a moment of historic opportunity that could be the framework for life in Ireland for not just a few years but decades, or perhaps even centuries. It’s a historic time, and a tremendous opportunity to make some progress.
PH: Tell me about your visit to Belfast last December for the International Investment Forum.
GM: I had a very good trip, very informative from my standpoint and I hope helpful from the standpoint of our investment effort. I went first to London to visit Prime Minister Major. I met with Prime Minister Bruton and the Foreign Minister, Dick Spring while in Dublin. In Northern Ireland I met with representatives of all the political parties and community groups. It was a very busy trip but I think I got a good impression and a lot of encouragement from people there about what we can do.
PH: And what do you think we can do?
GM: I have many memories of my visit. The most striking being when I met with community development groups on both sides of the peace line in Belfast on the same day. These were people who did not orchestrate their presentations to me in advance, they had very little contact, none in fact. They said essentially the same thing, with graphs and charts and data to support it, that there is direct correlation between the levels of unemployment and the levels of violence.
PH: What was the atmosphere in Northern Ireland like on your visit?
GM: There was, it seemed to me, a real genuine, tangible enthusiasm about the absence of violence, about the opportunity to lead normal lives and a desire to move forward with the peace process and also very positive feeling toward President Clinton and the effort being made by the United States.
It’s unfortunate that very few Americans are aware of the role that the President has played in this effort. Yet when you go over to Ireland, everyone states it and acknowledges it, and people are very generally aware of and recognize the crucial role played by the Clinton administration.
PH: Do you think the Adams visa was crucial to the peace process?
GM: The President made the right decision at each stage of the process and by his actions has encouraged progress towards peace. I think his timing has been right, and his actions, while obviously difficult and controversial, have been correct.
PH: Can you please share with us your own Irish background?
GM: My father’s parents were born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States just before the turn of the century, sometime in the 1890s, we think. The name was Kilroy. My father was born in Boston in 1900 and never knew his parents. All the children were raised in a Catholic orphanage in Boston.
Apparently what happened is that the mother died and the father couldn’t care for them and put them in an orphanage. My father was adopted when he was four by an elderly, childless couple who lived in Bangor, Maine. They changed his name to Mitchell – his name at birth was Joseph Kilroy – and shortly thereafter moved to Waterville, Maine, where I grew up. My father’s older brother Francis was also adopted by a family from Portland, Maine, but he later made contact with my father, and the families became quite friendly, and we have had regular contact over many years.
PH: Tell me about the early Irish settlements in Maine?
GM: There was a downturn in the Irish economy in 1829 and 1830, often called the small famine, and a lot of them came over and landed at Grosse Ile in Canada. They had no means of transport and so they walked to the United States and they walked through Maine. There was a lot of violence along the Maine border in 1830, and a number of them stayed in Maine, in fact, there was quite a substantial settlement, while many more went on to Boston. So I’m quite familiar with Grosse Ile. It led to the first large wave of Irish immigration into Maine.
PH: Do you hope to get back to Ireland soon?
GM: Yes. One of my objectives is to return at a time when I can simply enjoy it. That is to say, not on a business trip, on a pleasure trip, on a vacation. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with the people ♦
Patricia Harty’s interview with George Mitchell first appeared in the May/June, 1995 issue of Irish America magazine.