View Header


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 17, 1999
                      REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                     AND SENATOR GEORGE MITCHELL
                         The South Grounds           

8:45 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. I am very grateful for your warm reception. I take it you had a good time inside. (Laughter.) You not only put me out of the White House, you put all of yourselves out, too -- because we wanted to be here where we could sit as one, to participate in this very important ceremony.

I thank you, Taoiseach, Celia. I thank all the party leaders who are here -- Mr. Trimble, Mr. Mallon, John Hume, Gerry Adams -- all the others. I thank Mo Mowlam for her tireless work. And the members of the Irish government who are here, I thank all of them. (Applause.)

Mo Mowlam has got a great sense of humor, so I'm going to tell you a story she told me upstairs -- and I'll never live over it, I know. But she said, one night she spent the night here with Hillary and me, and she got in rather late. We stayed up rather late speaking. And then she went to sleep, and something happened and she had to get on the phone early in the morning, London time, which is in the middle of the night our time. And the operator called back and said that she was having trouble finding Secretary Mowlam, she was in Mr. Lincoln's bedroom. (Laughter.)

She said it was quite obvious the operator did not know who Mr. Lincoln was, or that he had been deceased for quite some time. (Laughter.) But she at least felt that she was in good company. (Laughter and applause.)

I would like to thank the members of our administration who are here, and the rather astonishing number of members of Congress who are here. I'd like to ask all the members of the United States Congress who are here to please stand, wherever you are. (Applause.) Many have come with their spouses. Congressman King came with about 15 members of his family -- (laughter) -- represents about five percent of the total brood. (Laughter.) We're delighted to see them all.

I'd also like to say a special word of welcome to Senator Mitchell and to Heather and to all of George's family and friends who are here. As all of you know, in addition to the entertainment, which we'll talk about in a moment, our primary purpose here is to give me the opportunity, in front of the Irish American community and so many of our friends from Ireland -- North and South -- to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Senator George Mitchell. (Applause.)

I really don't know if this is going to mean anything to George anymore, he's gotten so many honors lately. He can't walk two blocks down any street without someone throwing some sort of trophy at him -- (laughter) -- Irish American of the Year, Honorary Degree from Dublin's Trinity College. He even got an honorary knighthood from the Queen of England. George Lucas offered to give him The Force -- (laughter) -- but he said The Force was already with him. (Laughter and applause.)

Few Americans have served with such distinction in so many different capacities: prosecutor, judge, senator, presidential envoy, chair of Northern Ireland's historic peace talks. His, as most of you know, is a great American story. His father, born to Irish immigrants, adopted by Lebanese immigrants; his mother herself born in Lebanon. She worked a night shift at a textile mill; his father cleaned the buildings at Colby College. They stressed education and hard work, and George supplemented his scholarships with jobs as steward, dorm proctor, construction worker, night watchman, truck driver and insurance adjustor.

Now, we all know why he fought so hard for the working people of our country. At one time or another, he did everything that they do all day every day. (Applause.)

I've heard George say on more than one occasion that his favorite part of being a federal judge was administering the citizenship oath to new American citizens. He said he was very moved when one of them told him, I came here because in America, everybody has a chance.

Well, this son of immigrants has done his dead-level best to make sure that in our country everybody does have a chance. (Applause.) And he replaced a remarkable man, Senator Edmund Muskie in the Senate, and in just eight years became the Majority Leader .

In our time together, he pushed through crucial laws that enabled us to turn around our horrendous deficit, get our budget in order and start to grow our economy again -- to give tax breaks to working people; to broaden voter registration; to give 20 million people now access to the Family and Medical Leave law; to put 100,000 police on the street; protect religious freedom; clean up the environment; stand up for our veterans. That's just a few of the things that he did.

When he announced his retirement it was a bittersweet moment, for friends and colleagues wished him well, but also knew we would miss him dearly in this town. And I devised a scheme, the dimensions of which George would only later appreciate. (Laughter.) I think it is the only time in our long relationship where I outsmarted him, instead of the other way around. (Laughter.)

I asked him to take a small part-time commitment as my special economic advisor to Northern Ireland. (Laughter.) Then the British and Irish governments stepped in and asked him to chair talks on disarmament, and then on bringing a comprehensive peace after a generation of bloodshed. The small, part-time commitment became more all-consuming than being Senate Majority Leader. I got even with him for leaving me. (Laughter.)

He drew up principles of non-violence, aimed at preventing further tragedies while the talks proceeded. In building common ground among longtime antagonists he was a patient listener when he needed to be and a decisive leader when he had to be. He earned the respect of all parties for fairness, integrity and judgment. And he built the trust necessary to move toward an agreement.

Through more than 100 trips across the Atlantic -- shall I say that again? -- through more than 100 trips across the Atlantic -- (applause) -- he continued to press ahead in the cause of peace. Northern Ireland learned what its sister and brothers knew from endless nights of cribbage, what his college basketball teammates saw from their tenacious starting guard, what his fellow legislators learned on the Senate floor and on the tennis court, and what I learned as his friend and colleague: don't be fooled by the calm demeanor; this guy is a ferocious competitor, determined to succeed. (Applause.)

During the course of this endeavor, George and Heather's son Andrew was born. George thought of Andrew, and also of the 61 children born in Northern Ireland on the same day. He wanted to champion their future as well, to give them the same chance for a good life he wanted for his own son.

What motivated to George brought to mind for me a letter I read last summer at Omagh when, together, we met with survivors of the bombing there. It was sent to our then-Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith -- who is also with us tonight, and -- thank you, Jean. (Applause.)

I want to read this to you so you will understand from a personal point of view why I'm giving this medal to George tonight and why I want every person who is a part of this process to leave here tonight determined to get over this last hurdle, and to remember that we do not have a day to waste. Easter is coming again. Good Friday is coming again. (Applause.)

We have to give an accounting of ourselves. So remember this: "Dear Ambassador, you may not know me. You may not even get this letter. But after yesterday's tragedy I wanted to do something. I'm 29 years old, an Irishman to the very core of my being. But throughout my life, there has never been peace on this island. I never realized how precious peace could be until my wife gave birth to our daughter, Ashleen, 20 months ago. We don't want her to grow up in a society that is constantly waiting for the next atrocity, the next batch of young lives snuffed out by hatred and fear .

"Ashleen's name means "vision" or "dream" -- and we have a dream of what Ireland might be like when she grows up. Ireland could be a place where dreams would come true, where people would achieve things never imagined before, where people would not be afraid of their neighbors. We know America has done much for Ireland and all we ask is that you keep trying. Please keep Ireland in mind because Ashleen and all Irish children need to be able to dream."

Well, my thanks go to the Taoiseach, to Prime Minister Blair, to Mo Mowlam, the leaders of the parties, our government; but especially to my good friend, George Mitchell, who never meant to sign on for quite the job he got, but who did it as an act of love and devotion.

George, thank you for your service to our nation. Thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for being so tenacious. Thank you for your friendship and for being a truly fine human being.

Major Everhart, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

SENATOR MITCHELL: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much. President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Senator Hillary -- oops -- (laughter and applause) -- this is the culmination of a remarkable week for me.

As the President indicated in his introduction and as many of you know, my father's parents immigrated from Ireland to the United States about a century ago. My father was born in Boston, Joseph Kilroy. He never knew his parents because his mother died and his father couldn't care for the children. And so my father and his siblings were raised in an orphanage in Boston.

As a young boy he was adopted by an elderly couple who had immigrated from Lebanon to the United States. And so, although the blood in my father's veins was pure Irish, he was raised speaking Arabic. I never thought of myself as a hyphenated American of any kind, but until just a few years ago I was about as Irish as a shish kabob. (Laughter.)

When I went over to Northern Ireland in June of 1996, at the invitation of the Prime Ministers of Britain and Ireland, to serve as chairman of the talks, a few of the political leaders in Northern Ireland disapproved of my presence. And I remember reading the newspapers the first day, which quoted Dr. Paisley at length about my background. And I thought, my God, the poor man has confused me with Ted Kennedy. (Laughter.)

So now, within one week to have been named Irish American of the Year and to get this honor from the President because of my activities in Ireland, I now feel an obligation to go back to Ireland with my wife and family and trace roots. And I must say that the reawakening of pride in my Irish heritage has been one of the great rewards that I've received from my service there. (Applause.)

Mr. President, I thank you for your generous remarks, and I thank you even more so for your commitment to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. (Applause.) You are the only American President ever to have placed Northern Ireland high on our national agenda. (Applause.) You are the only American President ever to have visited Northern Ireland while in office. (Applause.)

The people of Ireland, North and South, know of your concern for them and for their future, and they are deeply grateful. In their behalf and in behalf of peace-loving people everywhere, I say, thank you, Mr. President, for what you did for peace in Northern Ireland. (Applause.)

I also want to thank you for giving me the chance to serve in Northern Ireland. I must admit that I didn't always feel this way. (Laughter.) During the years that seemed like decades, that I sat there and listened to the same arguments over and over again, I had other less charitable thoughts about you. (Laughter.) It was difficult and demanding, but it was also deeply rewarding.

For me to have played a part in trying to end an ancient conflict, trying to make possible a more safe and secure life for generations to come; for me to have come to know, to admire and to love the people of Northern Ireland -- these are rewards which cannot be measured or even fully described.

I can only say that my heart is overflowing with gratitude: to you, Mr. President; to the political leaders and the people of Northern Ireland; to Prime Minister Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and their predecessors; to Mo Mowlam, David Andrews and their predecessors and colleagues; to my colleagues as independent chairman, John DeChastelain and Harry Holkeri. To my staff, Martha Pope, David Pozorsky and Kelly Curry -- (applause) -- and especially to my wife, Heather, who was patient and understanding through three and a half long and lonely years. Thank you, Heather. (Applause.)

On an occasion like this it's tempting for me to take a nostalgic look back on my life. But, instead, we all must look forward with urgency -- not to my life, but to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. The events of the past year have shown the great promise of peace. But they also have shown that huge obstacles remain to a durable and sustainable peace.

On Good Friday of last year, the political leaders of Northern Ireland showed the world the true meaning of political courage. Many of these leaders are present, and I'd like to recognize some of them and ask them to stand.

David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Reg Empey, Gerry Adams, John Alderdice, Sean Neeson, David Irvine, Monica McWilliams, Gary McMichael. (Applause.) Ladies and gentlemen, these are the heroes of the Northern Ireland peace process. (Applause.)

These are the men and women who deserve the medals and the applause. And I thank you for letting them know how much you appreciate them and their Good Friday Agreement. And I'd like, if I might, now to ask your indulgence as I address those leaders directly.

You've heard the applause; perhaps better than anyone, I know how well-deserved it was. But even before the applause fades, the future intrudes. Getting the agreement was historic. But as you know, by itself it doesn't provide or guarantee a durable peace. It makes peace possible. Whether it will be realized is up to you.

The Good Friday Agreement transformed Northern Ireland. It also transformed each of you. You are no longer just the leaders of your parties; you are no longer just members of the Assembly. You are the vessels into which the people of Northern Ireland have poured their hopes and dreams. (Applause.)

You sought public office, and with it comes power and responsibility. And you have the ultimate and awesome responsibility of life or death. What you do or don't do could mean life or death for many of your fellow citizens.

As he left London to join us at the talks in Stormont last year, Tony Blair said he felt the hand of history on his shoulder. It's still there on your shoulders. For a moment, I ask each of you leaders to come back in time with me to December 16th, 1997 -- the last negotiating session of that very long year. We met in the small conference room at Stormont. We had tried for two intense weeks to get agreement on a statement of the key issues to be resolved, and we had failed. We were all bitterly frustrated and deeply discouraged.

As we walked out of the building that night into the wind-swept and rainy evening, it all seemed so hopeless, so impossible. And, yet, less than four months later you reached agreement. How did you do it? You did it because each of you took a risk for peace, each of you acted with wisdom and courage. And you did it because you knew in your hearts that the alternative was unacceptable. (Applause.)

It still is. The alternative to peace in Northern Ireland is unacceptable. (Applause.) It should be unspeakable, even unthinkable. The continued punishment beatings and the savage murder of Rosemary Nelson, who on Sunday was blown to death just a few yards from her eight-year-old daughter's school, are like alarm bells ringing in the night. They warn you and all of us that the cancer of violence and sectarian hatred lurks just below the surface and could erupt at any time into widespread conflict.

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. (Applause.)

The people of Northern Ireland don't want to slip back into the cauldron of sectarian conflict, and you can prevent it. Those who oppose the agreement have failed to bring it down. As Seamus Mallon has said, the only people who can bring the Good Friday Agreement down are those who supported it. And you cannot let that happen. (Applause.)

I know you; I trust you; I believe in you. And I say to you that the problems you now face are no greater or more difficult than those you faced and dealt with last year. You must again rise above adversity. You must once more defy history. You must come together now and as often as necessary, until a durable and sustainable peace is assured.

And then, and only then, you will deserve and receive the honor that transcends all others -- the satisfaction in your own heart and mind of knowing that in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances, you have bestowed on your countrymen the ultimate prize of peace and reconciliation.

After we reached agreement on Good Friday of last year, we were exhausted, elated and very emotional. And I conclude tonight by repeating what I said to some of you then. The Good Friday Agreement was, for me, the realization of a dream that sustained me through the three and a half most difficult years of my life. After it was reached, I told several of these participants that I have a new dream. It is this: In a few years, I will take my young son to Northern Ireland. We will travel through the country, taking in the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth, feeling the warmth and generosity of a great people. Then, on a rainy afternoon, we will go to the Northern Ireland Assembly, where we will sit quietly in the gallery and watch and listen as these men and women here debate the ordinary issues of life in a democratic society -- education, health care, agriculture, tourism.

There will be no talk of war, for the war will have long been over. There will be no talk of peace, for peace will be taken for granted. On that day, the day on which peace is taken for granted in Northern Ireland, I will be truly and finally fulfilled. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, George, for your service and your remarks tonight.

You know, when you stay in this work as long as Senator Mitchell and I have, you're not often moved by what other people in public life say. And even sometimes when you're moved, you doubt the ability of one person's words to move another. Tonight, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we were genuinely moved by what George Mitchell said. (Applause.)

And I believe I can speak for all of us who are not parties and will have no direct say, that we hope and pray that they were moved and emboldened and redetermined by Senator Mitchell's words. I will say what I have said from the beginning -- the United States will support all sides in Ireland that take honest steps for peace. And I hope and believe that the necessary steps can be taken before we pass another Good Friday.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Now, enough of this really too serious stuff. Now we're going to have St. Patrick's Day fun. Let me begin by thanking the performers who already have been entertaining you here and in the White House. Let me mention them all and then I think we should give them a round of applause: The Irish Fire Band and Dancers from the O'Hare School of Irish Dance; the Caulkin School of Traditional Irish Dance and the Next Generation Band; the harpists, Ellen James and Michael O'Hanlon; the Prince George's County Police Pipe Band; and the U.S. Marine Band Irish Ensemble. Thank you very much. Hillary and I appreciate it. (Applause.)

There is another great performance ahead: Both Sides Now; music and spoken words celebrating the people of Northern Ireland. You will hear the great music from our friends Phil Coulter and James Galway, two of Ireland's, and the world's, great musicians. Last December they performed together in Oslo on a great day, the day John Hume and David Trimble received the Nobel Peace prize.

They are joined by some familiar faces -- Roma Downey and Aidan Quinn. We thank them for being here. And you will here from the musicians of Different Drums of Ireland, whose sounds represent a melding of Ireland's traditions.

Finally, you will hear from a truly beautiful and remarkable young woman, Claire Gallagher. She lost her sight in the terrible bombing at Omagh. But she did not lose the vision and strength of her spirit and soul. And her mission for peace is powerful and clear.

Claire came here tonight with her parents, her siblings, her teacher, and we are genuinely honored to have her. Hillary was so moved by her before in Northern Ireland, and I can't say enough about my respect for what she has done to carry on with what will still be a genuinely remarkable life.

I thank all of our performers in advance. And again, I say I hope the music and the spirit embodied by the Irish who are here will also help to give us the strength and resolve to fulfill the final promises of the Good Friday Accord.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

END 9:22 P.M. EST