The former US special envoy to Northern Ireland is calling on Theresa May and Leo Varadkar to “recognise what’s at stake”.
The chair of negotiations over the Good Friday Agreement has warned against using the Northern Ireland peace process in the debate over Brexit.
George Mitchell, a former US Senator who went on to become America’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, used the upcoming 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace deal to urge today’s political leaders to “recognise what’s at stake”.
The marking of two decades since the 1998 agreement was signed comes amid the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and concerns Brexit could see the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The turmoil at Stormont has led to some, such as former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, to question the sustainability of the Good Friday Agreement.
But Mr Mitchell told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t agree with that analysis.
“I think the people espousing that line are primarily concerned with the Brexit debate in the UK and are using the Northern Ireland issue as a part of that debate.”
Despite all sides being committed to ensuring there is no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit, the issue has become a major sticking point in negotiations between the UK and the EU.
Mr Mitchell claimed the softening of the border on the island of Ireland had been an “important factor in reducing the stereotyping or the demonisation that existed between Northern Ireland and Ireland before”.
He urged UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to “recognise what’s at stake” in figuring out a way to preserve the “current status” of the border.
He said: “It’s the futures of their economies, it’s the possibility of resumption of conflict or of a reversion back to a time when nobody wants to go back to except for a very tiny fringe element on both sides.
“I think that means that they have to come up with reasonable and acceptable compromises.”
Meanwhile, Irish ambassador to the UK Adrian O’Neill spoke of the Good Friday Agreement as a “nearly miraculous” achievement that has delivered “essentially peace on the streets of Northern Ireland ever since”.
Talking to Sky News’ Niall Paterson On Sunday show, he said: “In some senses, the Good Friday Agreement was kind of our miracle after the horror of the 30 years that preceded it.
“Three-and-a-half thousand deaths, not just in Northern Ireland but also in Ireland, the rest of the island, and indeed here in Britain as well, a number of places were scarred by the violence emanating from Northern Ireland.”
Although he admitted reconciliation from the “hurt” of The Troubles is “going to take generations”, Mr O’Neill insisted the Good Friday Agreement – as an international treaty approved by voters across the island of Ireland – has “a status and a solemnity” and so “can’t be gainsayed”.
He also delivered a warning over the impact of a hardening of the Irish border after Brexit.
Asked whether a reversion to a hard border would necessarily see a return of violence, Mr O’Neill said: “I don’t want to be accused in anyway of subscribing to ‘project fear’ by making some kind of prediction that that would be the case.
“But, what I would say is that, I think this is universally recognised, a hard border in Northern Ireland would certainly subvert a lot of the progress that we have made in recent years.
“It certainly would not be conducive to the long-term project of reconciliation, it would again divide communities who live along the border.”