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Maintaining conflict, stopping bloodshed: Lessons from 15 years of peace in Northern Ireland

Although Republicans and Unionists still have extremely different ideas as to where the country should be heading they still accept each other’s right to imagine opposite identities and futures. Fifteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there is much Israelis and Palestinians can learn from Northern Ireland.

Unionist murals in Belfast (Haggai Matar)

Unionist murals in Belfast (Haggai Matar)

“No two conflicts are alike, and a solution that fits one conflict could never be copied successfully to anywhere else.” The same sentence, in minor variations, was said to me by countless members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, as well as journalists, academics and political activists during my short visit to Belfast about a month ago (which resulted in a piece published in Haaretz in Hebrew today). Had it not been coming from people who disagree on pretty much everything else and who support rival political parties, one might even assume they were all simply stating the party line.

All of them have a lot of experience talking to people like myself. Over the past couple of years most of them have either hosted or have been hosted by politicians, NGOs and journalists from conflict zones around the world trying to learn something from the model that put an end to the three decades of bloodshed during “The Troubles,” and the hundreds of years of conflict that preceded that period. But while it is true that one cannot simply copy and paste the Good Friday Agreement (signed this week 15 year ago, full text in PDF here) in order to create world peace, there is nothing wrong with tapping into the world of knowledge and experience the people of Northern Ireland have gained in order to try and rethink our own troubles here.

Republican mural of MP Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in prison (Haggai Matar)

Republican mural of MP Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in prison (Haggai Matar)

The first interesting thing about the GFA from an Israeli perspective is that it does not offer an end to the conflict. Our own history and bitter lessons learned from the Oslo Accords suggest that a temporary solution which avoids the fundamental core issues is a dangerous path leading possibly to nothing more than the maintenance of oppression in new and more sophisticated tools. This is not the case in Northern Ireland. Although the small stretch of land remains under British rule and the Republic of Ireland has changed its constitution to renounce all territorial claims to the north of the island, it is up to the people of Northern Ireland themselves to decide upon their own future in periodic polls. Devout Republicans are certain that time and the political process will bring forth a united Ireland.

At first glance this might appear to be more of a lose-lose situation than anything else. After decades of fighting “the long war,” the Republic Republicans have agreed to remain subordinate to the Crown, and after a hundred years of trying to trample any possibility of change in the status quo, Unionists have agreed to allow their enemies into power in what one day might force them to salute the tricolor flag.

But that is just what is so beautifully fascinating about the process both sides seem to be so committed to. The heart of the agreement, as I read it, rests on three principles: complete and utter mutual legitimacy to all forms of national or other identities and future aspirations (as long as these do not manifest in violence), a political power-sharing system that allows all parties to the conflict to be represented, and a joint recognition of the need for full civil equality and human rights for all under any current or future solution.

One of Belfast's "Peace Walls". Almost twice as high as the on in Israel-Palestine (Haggai Matar)

One of Belfast’s “Peace Walls”. Almost twice as high as the one in Israel-Palestine (Haggai Matar)

This means that Republicans can call themselves Irish, use the Irish flag, speak their language and promote their culture through state-sponsored schools, go on advocating a “one island – one state” solution in peaceful ways, sit in both the joint Assembly and Executive, promote cross-island policies in a ministerial council of North and South, all the while knowing that they will not suffer from discrimination for their politics or for being Catholics.

At the same time Unionists get to keep their own British identity, knowing that no border change will come without their consent and that their rights as civilians and as Protestant Brits will be safeguarded even if a united Ireland does come about one day. While it should be said that Unionists are feeling they got the raw end of the deal (the privileged and ruling powers always have more to give up on in peace than the oppressed), in return for sharing the power and giving up on certain privileges they had, they – as all people of the land – also gain an end to violence. So far, it seems that the majority of them are willing to accept that this better than having bombs go off in the city center on a regular basis.

In between the two polarized and equally legitimate identities peace is also gradually creating a new mixed identity, neither British nor Irish, but rather Northern Irish – an identity which 21 percent of the population now define themselves by. Although there is a fairly legitimate criticism of the GFA from the socialists – that the agreement forces the identity discourse and cross-community tensions to be an integral part of Northern Ireland’s politics, thus pushing aside the more important economic and class-based struggles that the poor of both sides should be conducting together – one might hope that time and new merged identity might bring about a new kind of politics that is not centered solely around “the conflict” (even though national sentiment is, as always, especially strong in the lower classes).

A new joint identity? End sectarianism (Haggai Matar)

A new joint identity? End sectarianism (Haggai Matar)

Taking the three-legged temporary agreement and trying to import parts of it to Israel-Palestine is not an easy thing to do, but it is worth the try. Putting the exact political structure aside, the foundations of such an agreement would have to be full equality and civil rights for all those living in the same stretch of land and under the same regime (be it one, two or more separate regimes), an ongoing political process to discuss the core issues around a negotiating table whereon all parties to the conflict that are willing to put aside their arms are represented (including Hamas, including settler groups, including civil society, perhaps including representatives of the two diasporas, perhaps including Arab states), and the coming to terms by all parties that we may find ourselves living together for a long time, calling the same places in different names, waving different flags, speaking different languages – without being petrified to death each of the others’ will and aspirations. Wouldn’t that be an interesting (re)start to the long journey for peace?

Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on Republican walls (Haggai Matar)

Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi on Republican walls (Haggai Matar)

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    1. rsgengland

      There is a lot of talk in the article comparing Northern Ireland present solution,to the situation in Israel-Palestine.
      A number of issues always seem to be overlooked though.
      1] The IRA never called for the destruction of the UK.
      2] There has never been any doubt that The UK, and later the Republic of Ireland, would guarantee the deal.
      3] There has never been any talk of expelling or dispossessing the Protestants.
      4] Although both sides were based on religion, the religion is Christianity, which has lost most of its violent, religious, extremist fervor in recent years.
      All of these points and more are very much alive and present in the Levant, and can be ignored only at ones peril.
      I think any comparison with the two different scenarios at this point in time, is both naive and disingenuous.

      Reply to Comment
      • 1.) The English colonial project in Ireland costs hundreds of thousands of Irish lives over the centuries. There was a popular IRA song called ‘Go on Home, British Soldiers, Go on Home’ – and the sentiment was extended to the unionists who painted the cross of St George on the sides of their houses. There isn’t all that much difference between mobs chanting ‘Go on home’ outside the gates of Protestant houses (and perhaps throwing a Molotov or two at the windows) to the conviction amongst some Palestinians that Jews of European origin should also ‘go on home’. And to many of those unionists, loss of British rule over Northern Ireland would have meant the destruction of the UK, especially given ties between the IRA and the Welsh and Scots independence movements.

        2.) The success of the deal was guaranteed? Some of the statements that have come out of London re. Ireland over the past four hundred years or so could have fooled me. It took a long time.

        3.) See above about the chants of ‘Go on home’. You should also listen to the fears of Protestant unionists in places like Derry, which are still not entirely allayed – the Protestant community has migrated over the years so that now there are hardly any left on one bank of the Foyle, due to concerns for their safety. After the mass displacements of Catholics that took place over the years (presumably you’re familiar with the phrase ‘to hell or Connaught’?) and the more modern practice of evicting Catholic tenants from their houses so that Protestants might move in (sound familiar?), there was quite a thirst for revenge.

        4.) As the old grim joke goes in Ireland, you can’t be just an atheist. You have to be a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist. Many of the most committed killers never opened their Bibles and rarely set foot in a church. When the guys who met Anne-Marie Smyth (a young mother from Armagh on her first trip to Belfast) and lured her to their home in order to strangle her and slit her throat to the spine, they didn’t refer to any religious dogma. Fervour in religious belief isn’t needed to make a conflict extra savage. As in Palestine, the problems in Ireland were caused by a history of ethnic cleansing and severe political repression; it wasn’t simply two Christian denominations having a catfight.

        Your basic argument is that we can’t apply lessons from the NI situation to Palestine because Palestine is especially bad. I don’t think you appreciate quite how bad the situation in Ireland was – or how long-lived. We really are talking hundreds of years of intractable conflict here.

        Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        1] The IRA never called for the destruction of the UK.

        The PLO no longer calls for the destruction of Israel.

        2] There has never been any doubt that The UK, and later the Republic of Ireland, would guarantee the deal.

        The IRA has upheld the deal. The same IRA Margaret Thatcher once called a “terrorist organization” (she considered the PLO a “terrorist organization” as well).

        3] There has never been any talk of expelling or dispossessing the Protestants.

        That’s because the protestants respect the Catholics and their culture, refraining from things like ‘price tags’ and calling the Pope a pig, for example. Also, the protestants never cut down trees belonging to Catholics.

        4] Although both sides were based on religion, the religion is Christianity, which has lost most of its violent, religious, extremist fervor in recent years.

        WRONG. This conflict was not about religion. It was about resisting a military occupation by a foreign power who supplanted its own population into illegally occupied territory. Sounds familiar?

        ” I think any comparison with the two different scenarios at this point in time, is both naive and disingenuous.”

        Who is being disingenuous?

        Reply to Comment
        • There have been serious problems with inter-religious respect. The Orangemen make a point of marching through Catholic areas to this day, for example, and Ian Paisley and his supporters have said and done far worse things than calling the pope a pig. But respect and trust are being built on the grassroots level and that is the main thing.

          Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            The sheer abuse suffered by the Palestinians at the hands of the outright racist settlers. I would compare it to apartheid South Africa, rather than Northern Ireland.

            Reply to Comment
          • I don’t know. Throughout the Troubles and their aftermath there were a lot of arson attacks on Catholic churches, that kind of thing. Just this January there was a huge uproar about the Belfast city hall deciding against flying the Union Jack all the time, and unionist rioters threw some petrol bombs at a Catholic church in Short Strand in retaliation. Then they started on the Catholic houses of the neighbourhood. Pretty terrifying, especially as the church hall was holding a party for children with special needs and their carers at the time of the attack. The church staff were lucky that all the children got out safely – there were literally hundreds of masked men in that street. The poor things were in a terrible state. Then the mob even managed to set some of the arriving police vehicles on fire.

            Also in January, over the same flag incident, unionists set up a roadblock and wouldn’t permit a Catholic elderly man past when he was trying to reach his dying wife in hospital. He cried out, “Protestants? You don’t own us, take yourselves home,” and when I read that I was immediately reminded of the West Bank roadblocks erected for settler convenience. He appealed with them to think about how they would feel if it was their relatives in hospital. They laughed, said, “We’re not in the hospital” and started to chant, “Here we are, here we are, here we are.”

            And all that for a stupid flag. Worth terrorising disabled kids over, and distressing an old man who is worried for his sick wife? If there is one thing that Israel/Palestine could learn from the conflict, it might be to rethink the centrality of nationalism.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            The only Palestinians inside Israel proper are foreign workers – citizens of future Palestinian state. Being foreigners, they can’t be granted the same rights as citizens, obviously.

            As of Israeli Arabs – there is no official discriminative policies.

            Reply to Comment
          • Carl

            Vicky, the elderly man who was not allowed through the Protestant road block was not Catholic, but Protestant. Which says a lot about the state of Protestant politics and the growing numbers of working class Protestants feeling utterly dislocated from their leaders, leaders who are seen to have profited greatly from the GFA.

            Much the same can be said for the state of affairs in the Catholic communities.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Haggai Matar

      Nobody said that there are no differences. There are, and they are huge, and the entire opening part of the article is meant to make it clear that it’s hard if not impossible to make comparisons. BUT – as I said, there’s no harm in trying to take some basic guidelines for a peace process, and using them as a sort of challenge for local players. Is there?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Joel

      The IRA claim that the 9/11 terror attacks made them re-think their strategy is bullshit.

      The IRA became peace loving only after it was discovered that the
      ‘# 3 man’ in their organization was spying for the British. He had the goods on the IRA’s whole political and military operation.

      The entire IRA leadership would have spent their remaining lives in prison if they didn’t see the light and ’embrace non-violence’.

      Reply to Comment
      • The disintegration of support for armed resistance in the IRA visibly started to happen before 9/11 – as evidenced by the fact that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. It was a process. The announcement of final decommissioning came in 2005, and I have never seen anyone anywhere suggesting that it was the result of British spying, still less that the spy was ‘the number three man’. What was his name?

        Facts aside, I also don’t get the overall point of your comment. ‘Peace is possible when you spy on armed resistance groups and force them into cooperation’?

        Reply to Comment
        • Yochanan


          Reply to Comment
    4. Joe

      1] The IRA never called for the destruction of the UK.

      The UK is the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and that is the way it is represented in the Union Flag. According to the Republican narrative, Northern Ireland is occupied territory and will not be free until returned to the Irish. Therefore yes, a united Ireland (same as an independent Scotland) would mean a dissolution of the UK.

      2] There has never been any doubt that The UK, and later the Republic of Ireland, would guarantee the deal.

      Most political and armed organizations involved guaranteed the deal.

      3] There has never been any talk of expelling or dispossessing the Protestants.

      Protestants are not currently occupying or destroying Catholics´ houses.

      4] Although both sides were based on religion, the religion is Christianity, which has lost most of its violent, religious, extremist fervor in recent years.
      All of these points and more are very much alive and present in the Levant, and can be ignored only at ones peril.

      Exactly the same as in the Levant, religion is not a matter of faith but of identity. Still, churches played a very important role in N. Ireland, both in peacemaking and in sparkling conflict.

      I would also like to remark that not all groups both sides would accept the Good Friday Agreement. However, this includes not only Republican but also Protestant Loyalist groups that, same as Israeli Settlers, fight for this land to remain British, even if this involves fighting against the British.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        Well, given that there’s no green in the Union Jack it’s pretty outrageous to claim that Wales and Ireland are included in it. It’s the cross of St. George mixed with the cross of St. Andrew to symbolize the union between the Kingdom of Scotland with the Kingdom of England under one crown. Wales and Ireland had been subdued by force by the English. Hence, Scottish claims of oppression ring hollow in Welsh ears, especially given that half the current aristocracy are bloody Scots. Anyway, that’s besides the point but worth mentioning

        Reply to Comment
        • Carl

          Joel, the St Patricks cross in the Union Jack represents Ireland: a fact which neither side would be happy with.

          Both protestants and Catholics continue to ethincally cleanse ‘their’ areas from the opposing sect, but also immigrants. I’ve seen the burnt out houses and it’s as bleak as it is anywhere in the world. The role of the inordinately high ‘peace lines’ is to protect residents from missiles thrown at their houses.

          On the subject of spies and the decline of paramilitary violence, the UK security services had Denis Donaldson in roughly the number three position in the PIRA for about twenty years. Nonethless the PIRA still killed, exiled and disappeared Protestants, UK soldiers, and members of their own community. They abandoned violence as a tactical move, and knowledge gained through spying was key to convincing the UK government to engage in dialogue. That said they did make an exception to murder Donaldson.

          Finally, this is not a religious conflict. It’s a sectarian conflict where a nominal religious identity forces you into one side or the other. I’m not religious, but if I moved to Belfast, I’d be ascribed a protestant identity/

          In fact I’d say that that’s one key lesson for Is/Pl shoul take on board from the NI conflict, the Is/Pl conflict is not about religion (the PIRA was founded as a Marxist group), it’s about sectarian identity.

          That said, things change, and between Hamas and the increasing national religious groups, you may all have worse on your way. Whilst I think there’s lots to be gleaned from the NI conflict, it may not be long before Lebanon offers you a more apropos example.

          Reply to Comment
    5. In 1996, standing in Tel Aviv Univ. campus, an internationally known Israeli game theorist–and Orthodox–said to me, “Look how long they have been fighting in Northern Ireland, hundred of years; why do you expect things different here?” Two years before GFA. This man was very descent, and I regret my own academic failure meant loss of contact. Yet now he could not make that argument. Reason enough for Haggai’s piece.

      Once again, I am impressed with his work.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      People are under a lot of misapprehension about the relationship between the British and the Irish. The whole of Ireland was British-ruled and became part of the United Kingdom for well over a century. Southern Ireland gained its freedom from British rule during the 1920s after fighting a war of independence. And the British kept Northern Ireland but Southern Ireland definitely did feel that the North should be part of the Republic. Ireland was partitioned just as Palestine was.

      The Gaelic-speaking Irish saw the British as occupiers and they in turn were seen by the British as an underclass, as is still evidenced by the wealth of English jokes that exist about the Irish. Northern Ireland was riven and Belfast became a hell-hole in which ordinary citizens were hostages to years of terrible violence, but let’s not forget the vicious bombings that terrorized mainland Britain.

      All in all, I think Haggai’s imaginative exercise in transposition gives much food for thought. From such a standpoint Israel-Palestine is not as unique and intractable as some deniers would have it. If such entrenched antagonists, one an international power, the other maligned, oppressed and resentful could eventually sign an agreement, we should be able to.

      Reply to Comment
    7. ish yehudi

      as far as the debate here- i am generally vehemently against the comparisons and applying language to our conflict here (because even when there are similarities- it generally overlooks complexity and doesn’t help us look each other in the face).
      But Haggai’s points about what can be learned from there seem right on. While people are comparing the particulars- the 3 practical princpiles in the article seem logical, different than the classic political discourse and long-term oriented.
      primarily the final paragraph all seems to be practical steps forward for us. And the point that the side in power will always have to give up more is an important thing that we Israelis have to get used to looking at— if an process is to be started.
      One very strong difference which I think needs a lot of thought- is that the Irish HAVE a country bearing their identity. Palestinians don’t have another Palestinian state (and even a revolution in Jordan wouldn’t give them sovereignty over their land). So can the classic nation-state drive be satiated with a state sharing its land? (a political body/ flag/ autonomy but without territorial sovereignty). That seems to be the challenge of a lot of the confederation models/ two states each from jordan to mediterranean… that its not the kind of state that the PLO has aspired to and worked for all these years.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Holly

      While appreciating most of your article, I think it’s very misleading, not to say dishonest, to state that the “Peace Walls” are almost twice as high as the one in Israel-Palestine without also pointing out that they are minuscule in length compared to the Israeli one. I would hate to see this photo being used to justify the gigantic (lengthwise) Israeli wall.
      Further, I don’t think the Palestinians have contributed to the wall, so it is hardly correct to call it a Palestinian one.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Joe

      It seems to me that there is a major difference everyone is forgetting: the EU. National boundaries are blurred to the extent that anyone from the UK can move to Ireland or anywhere else, so a claim of national citizenship amounts to little more than betting on a particular form of government, a particular set of taxes and benefits and so on. If you don’t like it, you can buy property anywhere else in Europe and more and nobody can stop you.

      In the future, I think the dawning realisation of the smudging of the notions of boundaries of the regional conversation had more effect than anything else – all participants realised that nobody was now forcing them to be one thing or the other.

      As the EU breaks down, I think we’re already seeing mass emigration from Ireland to the UK and elsewhere. As this builds resentment, I think we’ll see the drawbridges go back up and the ‘peace’ disintegrate in Northern Ireland. Sadly.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        Well, not exactly. It’s more or less as you say for a period of three months.

        Beyond that it gets a little more complicated.

        This is just my observation, but the smudging of boundaries has so far done nothing at all to smudge national identities, even in Europe. Most people don’t move from their homes unless circumstances force them to. And when that happens to them, all they usually do is yearn to go back. Which brings us back to our particular conflict.

        Reply to Comment
      • Leen

        Joe, that applies to Schengen-area countries, which Switzerland is part of (but they are not part of the EU). They deliberately did leave out the UK and Ireland precisely because of northern Ireland. That meant that borders needed to be defined as nation-state borders and thus this would inflame relations between Ireland and the UK because of Northern Ireland. That’s why the rules are a bit different with the UK and Ireland.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Joe

      I think these restrictions are mostly about claiming benefits. You obviously can’t just turn up in another EU country and expect to receive all benefits – however, you can live there and after 5 years you’ll be as entitled to all benefits as anyone else. The differences between the UK and Ireland are even less distinct.

      From the British Citizen’s Advice (free legal advice centres): “If you’re a British citizen you have an automatic right to reside in the UK, as well as in Ireland, Isle of Man and Channel Islands. This is known as the common travel area and you will also be considered to be habitually resident in the UK if you’ve been living in any of these places.”

      In contrast to Sh, I believe people have been permanently migrating between and within countries in Europe, particularly in the UK and Ireland, for hundreds of years. The difference is that with the EU the difference in being a citizen of the UK vs of Ireland are far less distinct.

      Reply to Comment
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