In a few weeks’ time, Senator George Mitchell will be 90 years old; three years ago he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia and during that time he’s been having treatment and hasn’t been able to attend or speak at any public engagement.

Indeed, he says, “my ability to function has been severely diminished”.

Yet, this week he not only travelled to Belfast to take part in a three-day event at Queen’s University to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but he opened proceedings on Monday morning with a wonderful 44-minute speech. An amazing man.

I was trying to remember the best speech I ever heard. I couldn’t think of one better than this. It was a masterclass, full of emotion, warmth, wit, grace, detail and power. What particularly resonated with me, though, was not the delivery impressive as it was, but the content.

He reminded us of the personal sacrifices he made to keep coming back to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, even after “feeling a sense of defeat” on one occasion and his commitment to and love of this place was clear when he said on Monday: “Northern Ireland is a good place and Northern Ireland people are good people. They want peace. Don’t let it slip away.”

The event over three days saw all roads lead to Northern Ireland for an array of world leaders, past and present and the organisers deserve credit for not making this a backslapping love-fest for the 1998 Agreement success.

There was inevitably some of that, but rather the remarkable event took an opportunity to learn from it and discuss how we could move forward.

Over the three days the themes were, 'Reflect, Renew, Reimagine'. It was good to see the involvement of so many women who played key roles and events to include young people studying politics in action.

As Tony Blair joked, the band got back together again when he joined Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern in a discussion led by Hillary Clinton. It’s easy at times to be cynical about people coming here, but these leaders were central to the making of history in this part of the world.

We had former Irish presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, current EU president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his predecessor Micheál Martin, the current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and, at a dinner all seven living former Prime Ministers from Sir John Major to Liz Truss, including Boris Johnson.

There was some comment about the irony of Johnson and Truss coming to Belfast after the mess they made of Brexit, as well as the presence of others from here who had opposed the Agreement. But it was right to invite everyone.

The event included so many more, too numerous to mention.

But the cast list was a clear indication of how much goodwill there was from outside, notably the United States, Europe, Westminster and Dublin, for a resolution of our long-running bloody conflict back in the 1990s. Most often, the greatest barrier to its resolution were our own parties and combatants.

Senator Mitchell recalled a line from the late David Ervine at the talks,

“In a loud voice, he shouted across the room to me: ‘Senator, if you are to be of any use to us there is one thing you must understand.’

“What is it?” I asked. With a smile on his face, he replied: ‘We in Northern Ireland will drive one hundred miles out of our way to receive an insult.’ Like you I laughed, thinking it a joke. But as I looked around the room they weren’t laughing. They were nodding in agreement,” said the Senator.

At this week’s conference, there was recognition of the parties here who had shown courage in making a deal with enemies, and there was some discussion among their successors today. There was also clearly much of the pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont and make Northern Ireland work.

Of course, the onus in the longer term is on us all. As George Mitchell said: “The future becomes the present in a heartbeat.”

Recalling his experiences here, Senator Mitchell said: “Over the next few years, I witnessed first-hand the unique skill of Northern Ireland politicians in the art of insulting their opponents. But a wise person can always be superior to the insults he or she receives. Wisdom and courage and grace, and even stubborn desire, can help to sow peace and root it down deep in the soil where it can, once again, grow”.

“So, I say now, to the current and future leaders of Northern Ireland: There is much in your history and in your politics that divides you. But there also is much that can bring you together, that can inspire you to continue what your predecessors began a quarter century ago,”

Senator Mitchell went on: “It is not a sign of weakness to resolve your differences by democratic and peaceful means. To the contrary, it is a sign of strength, and of wisdom. And it clearly reflects the will of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Recalling the day the parties agreed to the deal, Senator Mitchell recalled: “It was a day when history opened itself to hope. The people of Northern Ireland…… overwhelmingly rejected political violence as a way to resolve their differences.”

“They may take offence quickly. But it is unmistakably clear that they do not want to return to violence. Not now. Not ever,” he insisted.

“I know that each of your parties, like all political parties in the world, have some of what I call the one hundred percenters. They want everything their way, all the time. To them, any compromise is a sign of weakness.”

“But I say to you that reasoned, principled compromise is essential in divided societies, and reflects a belief in democratic values.

“There is great depth in recognising that the only way to help us emerge from the rubble of conflict is that we must learn to understand one another. We don’t need to love one another. We don’t even need to like one another, although we hope we could. But we must learn to understand one another, and to be able to say ‘yes’ to one another, especially when the quicker and easier answer is answer ‘no’.”

“Because, like it or not, we are all in this together. Facing the reality of the future, rather than clinging to the myths of the past, takes strength and courage and vision.”

“From the start of The Troubles until 1998, over 3,500 people were killed, and an estimated 50,000 were injured in sectarian violence. In the 25 years since the agreement was reached there have been about one 164 security-related deaths. But don’t think of them just as numbers because they are not. Think of them as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, whose lives were cut short, or were permanently impaired. Still, to this day their lives echo down the years,” said the Senator who asked his audience to stand in silence to remember all victims.

The conference itself had a clear message that the Good Friday Agreement was an historic truce which brought peace, but much work needed to be done politically to ensure there is no return to the dark days.

The Agreement’s successes included an end to violence, at least for the most part, an arrangement where both sides of the traditional divide shared in decision-making, an agreement that all identities would be respected and new and better relationships across the island, most notably between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

We should acknowledge some slippage in this and there are still difficulties with relationships, including within Northern Ireland.

So, it is time to reflect on the hurts and faults of the past, renew relationships and reimagine to dream of a better future for the benefit of all our people.

A final story from Senator Mitchell; his son Andrew was born in 1997. He discovered that 61 children were born in Northern Ireland the same day as his son and at the time he was thinking about giving up on the talks when he visited his wife, Heather, in hospital.

Senator Mitchell told a hushed audience: “We talked about what Andrew’s life might be like, and about the lives of the 61 children from Northern Ireland. Her reaction was immediate and strong. She said ‘You have to go back until it ends, one way or the other. If you leave now and the fighting resumes, and lots of people die, you’ll never be able to forgive yourself.’.

“Go back, give it one last try. I’ll take good care of Andrew. You think about those 61 children.”

It’s such a lesson for us about the commitment to our children and grandchildren’s futures.