PORTLAND, Maine — Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell accepted the fifth annual Claddagh Award during a dinner brimming with Maine political dignitaries and Irish good cheer Wednesday night.
The award honored Mitchell for his work in leading talks that brought peace to Northern Ireland after 800 years of violence there. In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Mitchell, who had recently retired from the U.S. Senate, to be his special envoy to the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. Although originally spurned as an outsider, Mitchell is generally credited with guiding negotiators between Catholic and Protestant factions to achieve the historic Good Friday Accord, a peace agreement on April 10, 1998.
In accepting the award Wednesday before former Gov. Joseph Brennan, who appointed him to the Senate in 1980, former Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and a room full of proud green-clad sons and daughters of Ireland, Mitchell noted that the Claddagh stands for three important Irish virtues: love, friendship and loyalty.
He went on to emphasize that loyalty is a two-way relationship, which benefits those who are the recipients of loyalty and those who show it to others.
In a speech peppered with humor, some of which parried a long, joke-studded introduction by Brennan, Mitchell shared personal stories about how his work to help forge peace in Northern Ireland helped him connect with his father’s heritage.
Mitchell recounted how his father, an Irish orphan in Boston, came to be adopted by a childless couple in Bangor. His father, whose birth name was Kilroy, never connected with his Irish roots, as he was busy raising and providing for a family in Waterville, where Mitchell grew up.
In a video presentation before Mitchell accepted his award, the former senator told of the day his son, Andrew, was born in 1997. The negotiations in Northern Ireland were at a particularly frustrating juncture, but on the day his son was born, Mitchell asked staff in Ireland to find out how many children were born in Northern Ireland on the same day as his son.
He learned that 61 Northern Irish children shared Andrew’s birthday, and he used that fact as inspiration to soldier on with the negotiations.
He explained that, after apparently guiding a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, he hoped to visit the country at a time when there was no talk of war and no talk of peace, “because it was taken for granted.”
He did so with his family in March. They met some of the children born on the same day as Andrew and who have lived most of their lives in peace, in part as a result of Mitchell’s statesmanship.
“When I went to Northern Ireland, when I traveled in Ireland, I felt the connection to a heritage of which I was not aware,” Mitchell said. “It’s a perfect example of what happens when you do something for others, you are doing something for yourself. In the doing for others, we achieve fulfillment.”
After tossing gentle barbs back at Brennan, who sought an apology from Mitchell, a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, for this year’s sorry performance by the team, Mitchell offered an earnest tribute to Brennan.
Mitchell spoke of how Brennan asked only two things of him when the governor approached Mitchell, then a federal judge, about replacing Sen. Edmund Muskie after President Jimmy Carter appointed Muskie to be U.S. secretary of state. Brennan asked that Mitchell retain as many of Muskie’s staff as possible, at Muskie’s request, and that “every decision you make is, in your judgment, best for the people of Maine. … Everything you saw in that video [which detailed Mitchell’s accomplishments] would not have occurred had Joe Brennan not appointed me to the Senate.”
Mitchell closed with an anecdote from his service as a federal judge to illustrate his belief in America. He said one of the most gratifying aspects of being a judge was swearing in new U.S. citizens. After administering the oath of citizenship, he would ask the new citizens why they had come to America. A young Asian man, in halting English and an American citizen for less than 10 minutes, told him, “I came because in America, everyone has a chance.”
Still inspired by that affirmation of the type of democracy he believes the United States can and should be, Mitchell said, “Our task as Americans is to see to it that every child, no matter who they are, has the same chance in life as Joe Brennan, John Baldacci, Chellie Pingree and I have. We should conduct ourselves so that in 100 years, he will still be able to say that he came to America because everybody in America has a chance.”