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Lee Umphrey is the president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corp.
Twenty-five years ago, I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Good Friday Accords. While he always gave credit to others, the real success of the plan can be attributed directly to Maine’s former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Waterville.
My role started two years earlier while Mitchell was appointed by the White House to be the special envoy to Northern Ireland to promote economic development. Mitchell, believing that young people finding a place at school or the workforce was key to achieving peace and reconciliation, wanted me to help plan and implement a job-training workshop in Belfast in late June 1996 to coincide with the start of the peace talks.
The planning process started in Washington, D.C., with the head of the Northern Ireland Bureau. This included meetings with U.S. Department and Labor officials, the British ambassador and Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland. The aim was to raise the comfort level of officials but the fact Mitchell was at the helm gave them reassurance.
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We convened people from Northern Ireland, Ireland and the United States. The challenge of overcoming generations of conflict while achieving a trust level to ensure a positive experience was key. For several weeks, we met equally with organizations in Catholic West Belfast and Protestant East Belfast. We included 20 high-level educators and workforce experts from the U.S. to create a forum to learn and work together.
At Mitchell’s direction, the conference, like the peace talks, intended to create a landscape for partnerships, equity and respect. Mitchell, speaking as chair of the peace talks, launched and set the workshop’s tone. His sense of self, place and community resonated with the people there. His hard-scrabble background growing up in Waterville with a deep love and appreciation for his family and home state made people believe anything was possible. An audience of 250 people included business owners, educators, elected officials and job-training people.
The work from the conference continued for several years with my colleague Jon Farley and me, hosting several workforce delegations from Northern Ireland, examining worker training models, particularly the roles of the Career Center, the Penobscot Job Corps Center and Eastern Maine Community College. Similarly, Mitchell stayed engaged with educational institutions in Northern Ireland and founded the Mitchell Institute to help young Mainers succeed.
The economy and people were reinvigorated by the peace process. Mitchell’s success happened because he tapped into his experience as Senate majority leader. He gave credit to others while navigating hard conversations on delicate matters. Most importantly, he knew when to call a vote. While situations constantly changed, Mitchell’s demeanor, actions and ability to connect was steady. His ability to give people time to talk and process helped erase the mutual hostility and strong personalities after years of violence and mistrust. He knew that the pro-agreement parties needed extra time and protection from the resistance of their own constituencies.
Seeing Mitchell’s success in Northern Ireland was familiar and reassuring. When he was a senator, I had worked closely with his Washington and Maine team on projects throughout Maine. In 1989, when I worked for U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, we spoke on the day Mitchell became Senate majority leader. I stopped him in the hallway to say I was moving to Bangor for a workforce development role so we talked about my Aroostook roots and ancestral home in Washburn established 1853.
On this significant day, he paused to talk about Maine, insisting that I seek out Clyde Macdonald in his Bangor office who then became one of my best friends, along with Margaret Samways over the next 30 years.
While the power-sharing model and Brexit have created hurdles, the process, done the Maine way by Mitchell, really worked because the real winners are the people of Northern Ireland.