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The Mediator as Coalition Builder: George Mitchell in Northern Ireland

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In 1996, George Mitchell became the co-chairman of the All-Party Talks in a polarized Northern Ireland where the extremes had the dominant voice while the center was relatively mute politically. In analyzing Mitchell's actions, we seek to break new ground in the study of mediation. First, we explicitly assess the context to identify key barriers and opportunities. Second, we move beyond general categories of mediator approach – such as communication, formulation, and manipulation – to match classes of mediator action to barriers. Finally,we place these discrete actions in service of a larger purpose by exploring the "mediator as coalition-builder."Whether explicit or implicit, Mitchell's overarching approach in the All-Party Peace Talks can be interpreted as a drive toward creating an outward rippling "coalition of the center against the extremes."Mitchell's effort to forge a coalition of the center led him to follow coordinated and multi-pronged process, issue and timing strategies, which are the main focus of this article. In principle, Mitchell might have sought to forge agreement via very different potential coalitional approaches: for example, seeking to bridge the extremes, seeking consensus among all parties, seeking to forge a dominant coalition on one side or the other that could have prevailed over its opponents, or seeking a sequential divideand-conquer approach to isolate and overwhelm the opposition, etc. Yet for this particular context, the centrist coalitional approach led to significant progress.


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