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February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — When a weary former Senator George Mitchell finally made it home to celebrate Easter in 1998 with his family after what he described as "two seemingly endless years" chairing the peace talks, he could never have imagined he would be back at the beginning again in Belfast this week.

It was in December 1995 that the infinite patience of the senator from Maine was first called on to chair an international body on decommissioning paramilitary arms in an effort to kick start multi-party talks.

Now it is the same issue that threatens to derail the peace process he devoted so much time to at such considerable personal cost. He was away from home at a time of family bereavement and when his wife was pregnant.

His intense involvement and evenhandedness allowed him to emerge from the quagmire of Northern Ireland politics with his reputation hugely enhanced. Few figures have immersed themselves in the Troubles and won such unstinting and almost unanimous praise for their efforts.

Mitchell imposed a cut-off deadline for the peace talks. He said the Northern Ireland years "had seemed like decades" as he sat and listened to the same arguments over and over and over again.

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No deadline has so far been mentioned for his resumed effort to get the deal up and running — but he is unlikely to bed himself down in Belfast for too long.

Finding a break in the deadlock will need all of Mitchell’s skills as a mediator.

Deadlines for the current arms decommissioning-Executive impasse have come and gone and the arguments and negotiations on the issue have been "talked out" to the point of tedium by all the leaders including the taoiseach and

British prime minister.

Mitchell’s creative diplomacy may find a gap of opportunity in the intricacies of the various solutions already put forward that could ease a compromise through.

His proven toughness may also persuade and pressure Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party to move forward rather than see the Good Friday peace agreement collapse.

Mitchell is son of a Lebanese mother and an orphaned Irish father who was adopted by an elderly Lebanese emigrant couple and had been raised

speaking Arabic.

Mitchell said he had never thought of himself as a "hyphenated" American of any kind. "Until just a few years ago I was about as Irish as a shish-kebab," he said.

This week it will be his teacher’s advice that will inspire him: "There is no shame in failure, the shame is not trying."

He graduated as lawyer and then joined the staff the staff of Democratic Senator Ed Muskie in Maine. He failed to get elected as state governor and when he became a federal judge his political career appeared to be over.

When Muskie joined President Carter’s cabinet in 1980, Mitchell succeeded him as senator and was later reelected.

He has demonstrated his toughness in the effectiveness of the Iran-Contra hearings under President Reagan, forced President Bush to break his pledge of "no new taxes read my lips," and opposed President Clinton’s early plans to scale back on health care and social security.

He stepped down as Senate majority leader and Clinton persuaded him, he said, to take "a small, part-time commitment" as economic advisor on Northern Ireland.

Clinton joked that Mitchell’s position was like the title of an old American country song about getting the worst of a divorce settlement — "She Got The Goldmine And I Got The Shaft.

"You got the shaft,’ Clinton said. "We go everywhere and people will clap for me and George will have to go back and sit in a meeting where people’s didn’t talk to each other".

Mitchell is back down that shaft now constantly emphasizing: "History might have forgiven the failure to reach an agreement since no one thought it possible. But once the agreement was reached, history will never forgive the failure to carry it out."

He said that when his son was born on Oct. 16, 1997, he asked his staff to contact Northern Ireland’s hospitals to find out how many other babies were delivered.

"Often, when I think of my own son, I wonder what kind of life those 51 babies are going to have," he said at the time. He may be wondering now if he will finish his current talks review before his son’s birthday and if the outcome will give new hope for the North’s 51 2-year-olds born on Oct. 16.

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