What lessons can be learned from Northern Ireland?

Below is the second column by Tom Mitchell. I have always told myself that the main “lesson” that can be learned from Northern Ireland is that violent, longstanding and seemingly intractable ethnic or religious conflicts eventually can be solved. It has been a source of hope. I am not sure if Tom agrees with that premise. Hope so. I also hope Tom won’t mind that I made a few parenthetical comments:


Having previously demonstrated that Northern Ireland is the case closest to Israel, I will briefly look at the main lessons of the peace process from Northern Ireland and their application to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Lessons
First, it was the centrist parties that started the process.

In Northern Ireland there were deep divisions on both the nationalist Catholic and unionist Protestant sides. The nationalists had two main political parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein. The SDLP opposed the armed struggle conducted by Sinn Fein’s armed wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The unionists were traditionally split into two main political parties, the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

During the peace process, the centrist Protestant UUP did its negotiating exclusively with the moderate Catholic nationalist SDLP, while pointedly ignoring Sinn Fein. Only the [Irish and British] governments negotiated with the terrorist parties, because the governments were the ones responsible for the issues that concerned those parties. [DF: So, is one lesson that the situation in Israel-Palestine might be helped if the U.S. negotiated with Hamas?]

Second, there were preconditions that participants to the negotiations had to meet. All participants had to swear-off violence and had to agree to decommission any illegal weapons they might have. These conditions were known as the Mitchell Principles, after Senator George Mitchell who came up with them and served as the chair of the talks. [DF: The very same man who came up with the “Mitchell Plan” to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Guess one out of two ain’t bad]

Third, it was the joint Anglo-Irish dual mediation that kept the talks going and was responsible for finally successfully implementing the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Two British and three Irish governments worked closely together. In both countries the negotiations and NIPP had bipartisan support from the main political parties. British prime ministers spent up to 40 percent of their weekly time on the Northern Ireland Peace Process (NIPP). It had top priority even during the start of the Iraq war.

This process worked because the two governments were less emotionally invested in the conflict than were their respective clients whose views they represented in formulating the framework for the process. Periodically they would issue new documents when needed to serve as parameters for the process. Outside governments like Washington, Helsinki, and Ottowa also contributed to the NIPP at the invitation of the two governments. Of these the largest contribution by far was by Washington.

Fourth, the NIPP dragged on for so long because the British government was unwilling to back up its side after the Republican Movement (Sinn Fein/IRA) failed to disarm in the allotted time period. London was mainly interested in avoiding a renewal of IRA bombing of London and other British cities and so was afraid to confront and pressure Sinn Fein. This also undermined the SDLP as more nationalists voted for Sinn Fein as they saw that its strategy was paying off.

Fifth, the NIPP worked because the UUP was willing to ignore violence including major bombings by dissident republican organizations and still keep negotiating. UUP leader David Trimble decided that an agreement was in the unionist interest. The Omagh bombing in August 1998, the worst in the history of the conflict, also served to end public support for the armed struggle and bring the two sides together.

Sixth, the UUP under Trimble was willing to negotiate before the Republicans had completed their journey from violence to democracy. It took the IRA 31 years from its founding in 1970 to its first act of decommissioning in October 2001 to make that journey. It took another four years to complete that journey. It is probably necessary to engage a terrorist organization/liberation movement before it has completed the journey to give it the incentive to do so. [DF: This may well be the most important lesson of all].

Seventh, the UUP paid a big price and the SDLP a slightly lesser price when the peace process failed between 2001 and 2005. The UUP will probably never again become the leading voice in unionism. If it does, it will take decades. The SDLP can only be saved by merging it with a party from the Republic.

Application to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Unfortunately, there is no real Palestinian equivalent of the SDLP. Fatah is the equivalent of the IRA. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the equivalent of the dissident republicans. Labor is the equivalent of the UUP and the Likud is of the DUP. The equivalent of Dublin would be the European Union. Instead of calling for Washington to be more balanced—which goes against both historical and political reality—its pro-Israel bias should be balanced by bringing in the Europeans. It is doubtful that Labor, having already paid a heavy price for the failure of the Oslo process, will want to back a new peace process if the results are doubtful going into it. Barak’s hesitation is perfectly understandable.

Only two American presidents have devoted the same time and effort to the Mideast Peace Process that the British and Irish prime ministers devoted to the NIPP. These were Carter from 1977 to 1979 and Clinton during the last six months of 2000. Clinton devoted his attention after it was already too late and time was too short. Much of the fault for this is with the parties: the Palestinians failed to act sufficiently to curb terrorism and the Netanyahu government was unwilling to carry out Israeli obligations under the process. To be successful American support for the peace process will have to again become a bipartisan American effort as it was in the 1970s. With a devoted Washington-Brussels dual mediation effort the Mideast Peace Process stands a slim chance of success; without it there is no chance for success.

13 thoughts on “What lessons can be learned from Northern Ireland?

  1. Dan,
    The reason that the Irish and British governments negotiated with the terrorist paramilitaries of both sides is that they held the terrorist prisoners in their prisons. So in the Mideast conflict there is no need for a separate negotiation with the U.S.

  2. Also, the power relationships and the extent of suffering experienced by the “colonized” are not the same. However oppressed or disgruntled the Northern Ireland Catholics may have felt, there is no comparison between their plight and the plight of Palestinians under occupation. There was a history of violence and inequality and class differences and many other sources of tension that created large chasms between the Protestants and Catholics, but the Catholics were not subjected to the same level of barbarity and cruelty by the governing power that the Palestinians are subjected to, every day. That is one reason why the Is-Pal problem is harder to solve.

  3. Tom, I don’t see how you can say definitively that there is “no need for a separate negotiation with the U.S.” simply because the situations were not precisely the same. The U.S. may well find it necessary to talk to Hamas and serve as a bridge to both Fatah and the Israelis, just as Schultz and Baker talked to the PLO. Your analysis offers interesting lessons but I don’t think one can draw such definitive conclusions.

  4. Dan,
    I was merely pointing out that the reason for the separate negotiations between the governments and the paramilitaries didn’t exist in the Middle East case.

    I think the main reason why the Is-Pal conflict is harder to solve is that there are a lot of countries that over the decades have had a vested interest in keeping the problem going. These range from the main Arab powers, the Soviet Union and its satellites, and today Iran. The only outside country that supplied the conflict in N. Ireland was Libya and even it did it on a sporadic basis.

  5. The Is-Pal conflict doesn’t get solved because the Palestinian side keeps insisting on settling some descendants of Palestinian refugees inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Their formula is land-plus-right-of-return-for-peace.

    The Israeli side keeps insisting on a straight land-for-peace agreement.

    That is the main reason why there was no agreement in late 2000. The Palestinian side demanded settling 500,000 Palestinians inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and would probably eventually have reduced their demand at some point to 200,000.

    But current Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (then Prime Minister) says that in 2000 he was never willing to agree to settle any Palestinians behind the Green Line.

    Former Labor party official and current head of the Meretz party Yossi Beilin offered a personal, unofficial proposal on his own behalf that Israel would accept 40,000.

    People inside and outside labor attacked Beilin for his proposal, and he lost his number two spot on the Labor list, falling to #36. Beilin then quit Labor and became the leader of Meretz, which subsequently went from ten seats in the Knesset to four.

    People should be realistic. The problems caused by Palestinians’ demand for a right to settle inside of Israel’s pre-1967 borders were never resolved for 60 years, weren’t resolved in 2000, haven’t been resolved now, and are not likely to be resolved in the next few years.

    Any negotiations will therefore be unsuccessful, because the Israelis will insist on land-for-peace, and the Palestinians will insist on land-plus-right-of-return for peace.

    I once discussed this matter on Richard Silverstein’s blog. I asked whether the Palestinians should reject a land-for-peace agreement and hold out for right-of-refugees-to-return-plus-land for peace. Silverstein said that he objected to the framing of the question.

    Someone else responded that if the Israelis refuse to allow Palestinians to settle inside of the Green Line then “President Obama” should force them to do so.

    That is a weak reed on which to lean. I don’t think that President Obama will, even assuming that he exists someday. Nor should he.

    Things will therefore continue as they are for awhile, with no major agreement. I don’t know what will happen after that.

  6. Very interesting piece. I always had a notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict had more resemblance to the Northern Ireland conflict than South Africa and that there were many interesting parallels that could be invoked to helped solve the I/P conflict. Not every analogy is exact: the Palestinians have absolutely no power backing them unless you count the outsider states of Iran and other Third world nations. Israel has always believed that it could hold out the Palestinians and bear any brunt of resistance that the Palestinians show to stop the occupation. And with little pressure from the US and the EU, there is no reason for Israel to even change course when everything is fine and dandy with expanding settlements and a Hamas-Fatah rift that prevents any unified Palestinian voice from rising up against the occupier.

    For Israel, there has been no real consequence for their continued path of colonisation and isolation of Palestine. The US is safely within their pocket and many EU leaders have testified to their deep support for Israel’s “security”. Without any strong opposition from the EU, who deals with Israel the most through trade, there really is no reason for Israel to “concede” a thing and have the rightist parties in an uproar over dealings with the PA. Whereas the Northern Ireland conflict had many incidents which proved that there were cause-and-effects to the occupation for the British and hence made many feel that it was doing more harm than good to ignore Sinn Fein, Israel has not seen any dent in its armour. It remains intact and even bombs Syria whenever it wants.

    Lastly, I believe Jonathan Cook had it correct that the military-industrial complex of Israel is a major economic bubble that needs to continue flowing. Without an occupation and the need for deterrents in the region, the remaking of this platform could be disastrous to Israel’s economy which is already struggling. The US and Israel profit mightily through militarism: the case for a lesser army might not make sense to many insiders whose pockets are filled from this industry.

  7. “””Without an occupation and the need for deterrents in the region, the remaking of this platform could be disastrous to Israel’s economy which is already struggling.”””

    This person actually believes that the occupation is good for Israel’s economy!

  8. Joshua wrote:
    “And with little pressure from the US and the EU, there is no reason for Israel to even change course when everything is fine and dandy with expanding settlements and a Hamas-Fatah rift that prevents any unified Palestinian voice from rising up against the occupier.”

    I think that is a misreading of the sentiments of most Israelis. It is true that Israel has not shown enough willingness to create a state that the Palestinians could conceivably accept, due to its dysfunctional political system, the unwillingness of left-centrists to stand up to settlers, a passive acceptance of new settlements in the suburbs of Jerusalem and a host of other factors. Just because their society isn’t willing to pay the necessary price of ending the occupation does not mean Israelis think everything is “fine and dandy.” It’s a bit like Americans and global warming. There is a growing awareness that something drastic needs to be done and growing alarm, but no willingness to do anything about it.

    Israelis voted for Olmert because they wanted separation, “you live there and we live here.” They voted for Barak because they thought there was still a chance for a negotiated settlement and end to the status quo that only a minority want to maintain. The vast majority still SAY they want a two-state solution and the main reason is that everything is not fine and dandy.

  9. Richard,
    I suggest the following:
    1) The Troubles by Tim Pat Coogan
    definitely from a nationalist perspective up to the start of the peace process

    2)The Troubles by J. Bowyer Bell
    from a more neutral perspective, but only covers up to 1991

    3)Himself Alone by Dean Godson
    the latest in a series of biographies of UUP leader David Trimble and the best good coverage of the period from 1998 to 2004

    4)A History of Northern Ireland by Thomas Hennessey
    a history to the mid-1990s by a British academic

    5)Man of War, Man of Peace by David Sharrock and Mark Devenport
    a 1997 bio of Gerry Adams that tries to piece his past together

    6)Endgame in Ireland by Eamon Mallie and David McKittrick
    a good short account of the peace process incorporating material from an earlier account that McKittrick co-authored

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