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An Irish lesson for the Middle East?

About the author
Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

Tom Griffin (London, OK):Does the Irish peace process have lessons for the Middle East? Many of the key players in the Good Friday Agreement seem to think so. Tony Blair has cited the precedent as cause for optimism in his role as Quartet Envoy, while Gerry Adams called for inclusive negotiations during his visit to Gaza last week. The analogy isn't universally welcome, however.

Two recent articles reflect the parameters of the debate. In the New Statesman, Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, argues that the British government's engagement with Irish republicans provides a model for an Israeli approach to Hamas. In Standpoint, Douglas Murray reiterates a longstanding neoconservative critique of such suggestions, arguing that "the claims of the peace process in Northern Ireland itself are unproven - but they are also unhelpful to the point of uselessness."

This dispute is significant given the identity of some of the key actors now emerging on the Middle East stage. US envoy George Mitchell was a key mediator in the Good Friday Agreement, while Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arguably more closely aligned with American and British neoconservatives than any other major figure in Israeli politics.

The first neoconservative to take a close interest in the Northern Ireland peace process appears to have been Dean Godson. According to his friend David Frum, Godson kept a close eye on developments during his time as a Telegraph leader writer in the early 90s. 

Dean kept pointing out that the Israeli, Colombian, and Irish processes all shared a dangerous defect: They were attempts to make peace with terrorist adversaries who were not sincerely committed to peace. As US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair lavished their patience and ingenuity to bring the two sides together, Dean kept perceiving that Clinton and Blair were engaging in a massive self-deception—refusing to see facts as they were, because those facts were too ugly and depressing.

Frum described Godson's 2004 biography of David Trimble, Himself Alone, as "an attempt through very close study of day-by-day events to show how democratic politicians can be sucked into a process of concession-making to those who intend to destroy democracy." The implications for the Middle East were highlighted by Melanie Philips in a speech at the book's launch

Godson developed the analogy in an analysis for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think-tank headed by former Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold.  He argued that unionists were persuaded to accept a settlement that was "well short of their historic aspirations" while republicans benefited from "disproportionate political concessions."

Trimble later acknowledged Godson as the driving force behind his own 2007 pamphlet for the Conservatives Friends of Israel. In Misunderstanding Ulster, Trimble warned that "in some quarters of the British establishment, pride in the state’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process has gradually developed into something resembling over-confidence" and offered "a word of caution about the growing tendency to set up Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution."

This critique was warmly welcomed by Melanie Phillips:

A variety of individuals and organisations in Britain, the US and elsewhere are spouting this ahistorical and ignorant view which has gained significant and alarming traction in the upper reaches of the British establishment. I am glad to see that in his pamphlet, Lord Trimble specifically singles out by name the ‘conflict resolution’ groups Conflicts Forum and Forward Thinking, as well as Peter Hain, Daniel Levy and Michael Ancram, who are busy promoting this view, every part of which is false.

Among those credited in Trimble's piece were historians John Bew and Martyn Frampton, who offered what amounted to a precis of his argument in a paper for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The paper identified three key differences between the situations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. 

...Hamas is a very different organization to the IRA. Unlike the IRA and the British Government - which objected to the means rather than the ends of the IRA campaign - Hamas' founding objectives are irreconcilable with the existence of the Israeli state.

...Unlike Northern Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which a number of regional powers have an important stake. Moreover, also unlike Northern Ireland, it would appear that some of the main players in the conflict have no interest in peace and stability.

...The key variable in Northern Ireland was not the act of talking to terrorists, so much as the timing of this process. The Hamas of 2008 is a very different force from the IRA of the early 1990s, which sought entry into the political process because it felt that its existing strategy was not working.

Similar arguments have resurfaced in much neoconservative writing about Ireland, most recently in Murray's StandPoint article. On the face of it, there would seem to be something of a consensus between Ulster Unionists, British neoconservatives and Israeli Likudniks. Yet there are obvious tensions within this apparent unity.

Most significantly, Godson, Phillips and Murray are all at least suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the Good Friday Agreement. Trimble, naturally and rightly, regards the Agreement as a success, as do Bew and Frampton.

The suggestion that the lessons of Northern Ireland have been misunderstood and misapplied to the Middle East is essentially an attempt to paper over this crucial difference. The arguments in support of it do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first of these is the claim that Hamas represents a uniquely existential threat, a claim which is enthusiastically taken up by Douglas Murray:

Despite its bloodthirsty thuggery and wearisome sadism, the IRA never had in any of its manifestations a desire to annihilate the British state. It did not desire the extermination of the British people. It did not seek through its charter obligations to rid the world of Britishness in general or the British people in particular.

Trimble's pamphlet makes a similar argument, but tellingly, attributes it to the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland. It's a strange point for a unionist to make, and Bew and Frampton introduce a crucial nuance:

The British government, it has been noted, repeatedly affirmed its lack of strategic interest in Northern Ireland. This it could do because the aims of the IRA posed no existential threat to the British state (though, it should be noted that they did pose an existential threat to the Northern Irish state) and, as a result, the British state had no fundamental objection to the IRA's key objective - the reunification of Ireland.

The qualification makes a nonsense of the argument, since it shows that unionism provides a precedent for successful negotiation with an opponent defined as an 'existential threat.'

Frampton and Bew's second argument, about contrasting regional situations is also more questionable than may be readily apparent. Despite the benign relationship between the British and Irish governments, the British Army's own analysis of the conflict identified the Irish border as a major unresolved operational problem.

In grand strategic terms a diplomatic stand-off between the UK and Eire on Border issues was not realistic. There was, in addition, no guarantee that any possible Dublin Government measures in the Border areas would have been effective: the Garda and Irish Army forces available were small, and republican extremism was a destabilising factor, and a potential threat, to the Dublin Government.

In contrast to the 224-mile long Irish border, the frontier between Gaza and Egypt is only 9 miles long. The recent Israeli invasion of Gaza produced little evidence to back up claims of major support for Hamas from regional actors such as Iran, as analyst Trita Parsi noted:

Again, history seems to be repeating itself. After daily demonstrations in Tehran in favor of the Palestinians, including a six-day sit-in at Tehran airport by hard-line students demanding government support for sending volunteers to fight in Gaza, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei contained the protesters by thanking them - while pointing out that Iran was not in a position to go beyond rhetorical support since "our hands are tied in this arena." Other Iranian officials have reinforced that message

The invasion of Gaza also places a question over Bew and Frampton's third point, that the IRA came to the table from a position of weakness, while Hamas would be negotiating from a position of strength.

Whether or not one accepts their characterisation of the IRA's position in the early 1990s, it is not clear that it was necessarily worse off than Hamas is now. Trimble's 2007 argument on this point makes striking reading with the benefit of hindsight:

the unspoken truth was that the British Government could, if it wished, deploy overwhelming force to the province: it enjoyed total dominance of the territorial waters around Northern Ireland, the airspace and – save for a small area adjacent to the Irish border where South Armagh’s “bandit country” prevailed – the land. The same cannot be said for Israel vis-à-vis those who face it with hostility

In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, we know that Israel could, and did, deploy overwhelming force against Hamas in Gaza, without any response from its supposed state sponsors.

This suggests that Bew and Frampton's analysis of Hamas strength was always alarmist. Even on their own terms, the relative weakness of Hamas in the aftermath of the Gaza invasion is arguably an opportunity for negotiations.

None of this means that there are not crucial differences between the two conflicts. While Hamas is part of an international Islamist movement, Irish republicanism is largely secular, although it wasn't always interpreted that way by unionists. It's priorities are largely national rather than international, although it wasn't always interpreted that way by the neoconservatives of the 1980s, who saw the IRA and the PLO as part of Moscow's global terror network.

Every conflict has its own dynamic which resists easy parallels, but the neoconservative analysis of Northern Ireland is not so much a critique of a particular model of peace-making as a  crude rejection of peace-making as such, summed up in Douglas Murray's injunction that "When wars are brought to an end prematurely and with no clear victor, it is not the victorious end of war that is achieved, but - as we are currently being reminded - a false and unnatural peace."

That agenda deserves no support from the makers of the Good Friday Agreement or anyone else.

Tom Griffin is a researcher for the Neocon Europe project.


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