Northern Ireland: Life after Mitchell

New Special Middle East envoy George Mitchell’s responsibilities are our responsibilities too.

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as the special envoy for the Middle East, and somewhere in Minnesota someone screamed. Well, to be more precise, it was me. I screamed. I screamed, I pouted and I scrawled in lipstick on every Associated Press photo of the event that I could find: âÄúThat should have been me.âÄù Contrary to my own disappointment, Obama did not make a grievous error in the selection of Mitchell. In fact, the international community warmly welcomed MitchellâÄôs appointment. IsraelâÄôs ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, assured that, âÄúIsrael holds Sen. Mitchell in high regard and looks forward to working with him on taking the next steps towards realizing a future of peace and security for Israel and her neighbors.âÄù Arab news reported that the chief negotiator of Palestinian authority, Ahmad Qorei, also agreed. âÄúWe have already worked with him as the author of the Mitchell Report, which called for a freeze of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory and the withdrawal of the Israeli army from West Bank towns,âÄù he said. Unfortunately, their positive reactions have only served to increase, rather than abate, my incredible irritation for Mitchell. Mine is a purely personal dispute that began when I was 11 years old. I have never met the man âÄî nor do I care to âÄî but I have always watched him helplessly from afar as he achieved nearly every political ambition of which I have dreamed. I am condemned to arrive on his heels, always 10 years too late, and there isnâÄôt a damn thing I can do about it. I am mostly referring to his work as a peace envoy in Northern Ireland during their tumultuous period of civil strife known as âÄúThe Troubles.âÄù The Troubles lasted from the late 1960s until the signing of the famous Good Friday Agreement in 1998, brokered by then-President Bill Clinton and Sen. Mitchell. I arrived in 2007 for a Peace and Conflict Studies semester abroad at the University of Ulster-Magee in Derry, Northern Ireland. My reasons for studying there were both noble and naïve. I wanted to come to terms with the realities of terrorism without being in direct danger as an American. I wanted to harden myself for my greater life goals of service by witnessing the afflictions of war firsthand, and my hippie heart wanted to promote world peace. Stupidly, I also wanted to fall in love with a revolutionary. However, upon arrival, I discovered that Mitchell had already completed most of the grunt work. There was no revolution here. Northern Ireland was relatively stable. There was no rioting in the streets, no bombs over Belfast, and the Bloody Sunday Commemorative March took place without so much as a blade of grass bending in rebellion. I was jealous. I had arrived to help, and it appeared as if nobody needed me. That damn Mitchell had stolen my thunder. This wasnâÄôt true, of course. During my five months there, I learned that although Mitchell and the Clinton administration had facilitated some laudable negotiations and progress among all sides of the Northern Ireland conflict, the symbolism of these events didnâÄôt quite shake out the same on the streets. You only have to scratch the surface of life in Derry for age-old sectarianism to raise its ugly head. I had wanted to laugh when my friends informed me that I could not wear my orange sweater into the pub (a Protestant color), but they were deadly serious. It was a Catholic pub and in the Bogside, nonetheless âÄî a notoriously Republican neighborhood where the street curbs were still painted to reflect the tri-color of the Irish Republic. My friends lectured me on the dos and donâÄôts of daily life in Derry. DonâÄôt wear Gaelic sports insignia, donâÄôt walk through that neighborhood after dark and do not, under any circumstances, call the police if something goes wrong. The police are not to be trusted. Ironically, the more they outlined the constant danger, the more gleeful I became. Northern Ireland needed me! There was still work to be done here, long after the bigwigs had moved on. The work is not glamorous, nor is it well-paid; it wonâÄôt even get you a high-profile appointment as the special envoy to the Middle East. But it is crucial to the success of a sustainable peace. The Northern Ireland economy and infrastructure was just beginning to recoup itself when I lived there in 2007. Investors were shedding their fears of the region and tourism smiled brightly upon the scenic Antrim coast. Unfortunately, the current worldwide economic crisis has put these promising beginnings near a standstill. Another devastating product of âÄúThe TroublesâÄù is the marginalization of youth. Alcoholism, inadequate education, a lack of policing and the easy availability of drugs are all contributing factors to their vulnerability. With peace in place, teenagers have evolved into âÄúrebels without a cause,âÄù and street violence continues to be widespread and undirected. I have returned to Derry twice since then, and I hope to move there in order to devote my time to re-building their country. Every year, I have my picture taken in front of the historic âÄúYou Are Now Entering Free DerryâÄù sign that marks the entrance to the Bogside. This year, it has been painted over to read: âÄúYou Are Now Entering Free Gaza,âÄù as an expression of solidarity for the Palestinians during the most recent Israeli attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also on my world peace to-do list and, once again, Sen. Mitchell has beaten me to the punch. But I donâÄôt mind. IâÄôve realized now that the real achievement is not about being the first one on the scene, but about being the last one to leave. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected].