George Mitchell vowed that part of his heart will always be in Northern Ireland as a new bust of the peace mediator was unveiled in Belfast.
The former US senator – who helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – has been immortalised in bronze at Queen’s University, an institution where he once served as chancellor.
The sculpture, which was created by acclaimed Northern Ireland artist Colin Davidson, was unveiled by current chancellor Hillary Clinton and Mr Mitchell’s wife Heather on the first day of a major conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the accord.
It stands in front of the university’s Whitla Hall and is intended to act as an inspiration to students emerging from the building after their graduation ceremonies.
“Well, my first reaction is that when you’re looking at a statue of yourself, you know the end is near,” Mr Mitchell joked at the ceremony.
“So I’m going to enjoy it in what time is left. My heart is filled with gratitude to so many people.”
The veteran diplomat spoke of his and his wife’s deep affection for Northern Ireland.
“A very large part of our hearts and of our emotions will forever be here in Northern Ireland,” he said.
He added: “This is a good place. You are good people. You deserve a life of peace, opportunity and prosperity. Please, I ask you, I beseech you, continue your efforts. Life has changed, circumstances will arise in the future that cannot now be anticipated. But opportunity, prosperity and peace is a right of the people of Northern Ireland.
“To have been able to participate in some way in furthering their rights, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
Mr Clinton described Mr Mitchell as a “brilliant” mediator.
“Today means a lot to me, because I’m the guy that talked George Mitchell into taking that easy little part-time job I discussed,” he joked.
“If you ever wonder how important Ireland was to George Mitchell and the Northern Irish peace process, just remember this – I tried to get him to go on the Supreme Court and he said ‘no’.
“And I said ‘well, how about this (Northern Ireland talks process), this won’t take long’.
“And for 25-plus years now, he’s been reminding me of how misleading I was about that little part-time job I asked him to take. But he was brilliant at it. And he loved what he was doing. And he fell in love with all the details and the warts and all. He stayed at it.”
Mr Clinton told the ceremony the Good Friday deal had created a “thing of beauty”.
“As long as I have known George Mitchell he has always tried to do what was best for everybody,” he said.
“He has an innate sense of fairness and a genius about how to achieve it. He gets you to change your mind and you could swear you didn’t change anything – that’s what you thought all along.
“His genius was a great gift to the people of Northern Ireland and to people who love peace everywhere and I’m glad it will be commemorated in this beautiful, beautiful sculpture.”
Ms Clinton said there could be no more “fitting tribute” than the statue.
Former PM Sir Tony conveyed the significance of the role Mr Mitchell played in the talks.
“In the frenzy of Northern Ireland politics, George was this soothing balm of wisdom and calmness and tranquillity, he created just the right atmosphere for people to talk to each other,” he said.
“He was also, of course, instrumental in drafting the framework for the Good Friday Agreement. So he was not just a great guy, he was a great lawyer, which we needed too in order to put all the different strands together.”
Mr Ahern said it as an “absolute honour” to attend the event as he praised Mr Mitchell’s “courtesy”, “dignity” and “respect for all of us”.