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.

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