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What Northern Ireland can teach us about Israel-Palestine

Imagine if Jerusalem had an Israeli mayor from the Likud party, and a Palestinian deputy mayor from Fatah. It’s not so far-fetched — the equivalent is already in place in Belfast.

By Liel Maghen and Eran Tsidkyahu

Graffiti in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Ben Kerckx/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Graffiti in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Ben Kerckx/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Walking around Belfast’s various neighborhoods can remind one of the situation in Jerusalem. It’s not just the wall that divides residents of the same city — it’s also the graffiti of Israeli flags on one side of the street and statements in support of Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barghouti on the other. As a group of Jerusalemites, we couldn’t help but compare the reality in our home city to that in Belfast, and the situation in our country to what’s going on in Northern Ireland.

But in contrast to Jerusalem, where the conflict is far from over, Northern Ireland is deeply engaged in a reconciliation process that began at the end of the ‘90s. So we sought to try and learn from Northern Ireland’s recent history how to put a stop to the cycle of violence in Jerusalem.

We visited Belfast as part of a group of Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites who work on Jewish-Arab political and cultural issues. Our trip was a collaboration between the joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO IPCRI and the Irish Embassy, and involved studying, over several days, how a national conflict expresses itself in shared urban spaces.

Our trip revealed to us the complexity of the British-Irish conflict. The Palestinians in our group naturally identified with the Catholic struggle for independence from the U.K. and for the unification of historic Ireland, along with the quest for equality in the face of historic discrimination by the Protestant British hegemony. The Israelis, meanwhile, found themselves likened to that same Protestant hegemony, thought of as a foreign power occupying the local population.

50 Years Too Many in-text banner

Belfast’s residents have also scrawled political messages on the so-called “peace lines” that separate the city’s various neighborhoods — and communities — from one another. Protestant areas of the city feature Israeli flags alongside monuments commemorating British participation in various battles to “liberate the land of Israel. Catholic areas, on the other hand, are home to Palestinian flags next to signs supporting the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike. (Interestingly, in the 1940s, the Irgun and Irish-Catholic revolutionaries were mutual admirers; the latter even claimed inspiration from the former, and were avid readers of Menachem Begin’s book ‘The Revolt.’)

From perpetrators of violence to agents of change

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the Palestinian Jerusalemite academic, has stressed the need to compare different conflicts in order to try and understand what characteristics they may share. In the introduction to his 2004 book, “Ireland and Palestine — Divided Countries United by History,” Abdul Hadi writes:

There are many differences between the con­flicts in Ireland and Palestine, but there are also key similarities. For instance, both conflicts are character­ized by a long history of struggle for independence and both have a deep-rooted religious aspect. Both peoples have witnessed uprisings, revolutions, wars and attempts to partition their land, and both have developed and maintained a strong identity. In both cases major documents were signed in 1993 aiming at an end to decades of confron­tation (the PLO-Israel Declaration of Principles in September and the Anglo-Irish Joint Declara­tion on Peace in December), and there have been ongoing negotiations ever since. Both declarations did not really present any new ideas but provided the necessary political con­ditions allowing the parties to start negotia­tions.

The fragile coexistence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and particularly in Belfast, has been made possible thanks to the reconciliation process that began with the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 and continued with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The agreement won broad legitimization from both sides, negotiated by directly elected representatives — including former political prisoners who had agreed to a ceasefire. This legitimization enabled the status quo to be maintained, and the very perpetrators of violence to become the main agents for change in both societies.

The agreement had a modest goal — to improve the situation while entering into a lengthy reconciliation process. The signing of the agreement was therefore not conditioned on the resolution of all core issues at the outset, but rather was understood to be part of a long journey. First came armistice, followed by a guarantee of representation in decision-making processes and in the police. Only recently has a further step been taken toward cooperating on reforming the joint education system.

It became clear from our conversations with activists and former prisoners that neither side has given up on its ambitions over the two decades following the agreement. But both sides are working toward their goals via political means, and barely anyone speaks today of a return to armed struggle as a realistic option.

There is another important lesson to be learned from this outcome. Despite our criticizing the delay to resolving core issues, speakers from both sides in Belfast repeatedly emphasized to us how much the city had benefited from the tremendous change wrought by the agreement. Belfast has gone from fear and violence to a shared city where one can live a pleasant and comfortable life.

Ulster Volunteer Force mural, Belfast, Northern Ireland, August 5, 2007. (Sitomon/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ulster Volunteer Force mural, Belfast, Northern Ireland, August 5, 2007. (Sitomon/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The generation born after the agreement has no personal memory of the conflict: it conducts business across different demographics, studies in a joint education system and sees a different political future for the city. The national and municipal institutions they grew up with were structured around equality, and they see one another as equal partners in their society. When members of this generation take their place in the Northern Irish leadership, they will likely be ready to take the next step in the country’s reconciliation process, toward a comprehensive resolution.

Goodwill gestures

On our last day, Belfast Deputy Mayor Mary Ellen Campbell — a member of Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party — warmly welcomed us to the city council building. She stood in at the last minute for Mayor Brian Kingston, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, which supports unity with Britain. Shortly after she began speaking, Campbell suddenly raised her head and remarked, “I’ve only just noticed that Brian has put up a picture of Michael Higgins (the president of the Republic of Ireland) under the photos of the British Royal Family. That’s so nice.”

The Israeli-Palestinian equivalent of this gesture would be for Jerusalem’s deputy mayor to be a Fatah member, and for them to be hosting Irish Catholics and Protestants in the Likud-affiliated mayor’s office — and while doing so, suddenly notice that their colleague has displayed, as a goodwill gesture, a portrait of the head of the PLO and PA underneath pictures of the Israeli president and prime minister. As inconceivable as that is to us, it’s the reality that the agreement created in Belfast.

Our mixed group looked longingly at the situation in Belfast. Two decades on from the agreement, the city — although full of challenges — is a safe one, in which Protestants and Catholics share resources and political power equally. Their disputes are mediated nonviolently.

We learned in Belfast that a reconciliation process is possible, albeit long and exhausting. In all likelihood, it will take one or two generations after the signing of an agreement in order to achieve genuine peace. But a reconciliation process cannot commence without a stable and legitimate political accord that affords equal rights to both sides. This is an important and profound message to all those trying to resolve the conflict via indirect means, or who are trying to manage or mitigate it by way of different economic models.

And for all those who despair of any possibility that they will see a peace agreement from the river to the sea: the era of the Northern Ireland peace process has seen Belfast change completely, and so there is still hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that will pave the way for a reconciliation process. It’s therefore our duty to remember that the agreement will only be the start of this journey, and not its long-awaited end. Such a change would be valuable for us, even if the end is not yet in sight.

Liel Maghen is the co-director of IPCRI, which promotes collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians on solutions to core issues in the conflict. Eran Tsidkyahu is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking and a doctoral student at Sciences-Po in Paris, where he focuses on religious nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. Firentis

      The Irish have the Republic of Ireland. The British have Great Britain. The Protestant North Irish (who see themselves as British) accept that the Irish have the Republic of Ireland and have no claims on it. The Catholic North Irish accept that the British have a country. The conflict was over whether North Ireland would be part of a united Ireland or part of Great Britain. It is very obviously currently a part of Great Britain. In practice the Catholics lost and an agreement became possible once the British beat the IRA into submission.

      The Palestinians have not and do not accept the principle that there will be any Jewish self-determination within any borders so the situation is somewhat different. Nor obviously do the Palestinians have their own state. So, the parallels are somewhat limited between the two cases and there isn’t much wisdom that is reusable in our little conflict.

      If there is something to learn from North Ireland it is that it is possible to beat the weaker side into accepting failure and then accepting a face saving agreement.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: What do your Palestinian friends/acquaintances say about Jewish self-determination?

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          They reject it.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Firentis seizes on ways in which the two conflicts are sort of dissimilar and ignores the many ways they are strikingly similar, and then comes up with this gem of dishonesty:
        “The conflict was over whether North Ireland would be part of a united Ireland or part of Great Britain. It is very obviously currently a part of Great Britain. In practice the Catholics lost and an agreement became possible once the British beat the IRA into submission.”

        The fact of the matter is that politically, Great Britain includes England, Scotland and Wales, and NOT Northern Ireland! The fact of the matter is that the Good Friday Agreement is about reconciliation and power sharing and occurred only after both sides had beaten each other into relative submission. It is NOT about “the Catholics lost and the Protestants won”—far from it. The Catholics and the Protestants involved certainly know that even if Firentis doesn’t. The complexities of the Good Friday Agreement and the sharing of power in all the complex arrangements alluded to above, are NOT represented by Firentis’ crude distortion nor, as much as Firentis dreams it, is it going to be true that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be resolved with “the Palestinians will lose after we beat the Palestinians into submission and then take their land and get them to submit to ‘Jewish self-determination.’” Again these code words: “Jewish self-determination” – what does it mean? It’s a nice sounding cant word, a code word that can mean whatever you want it to mean. “Israeli self-determination” is meaningful—connects to a legitimate political entity. “Jewish self-determination” is like “Catholic self-determination” is like “Protestant self-determination” is like “White People self-determination” is like “Black People” self determination.” It is a simplistic and quasi-fascist ethnotheocratic racializing of what is a much more complex conflict.

        And Firentis, of course, entirely ignores this observation: “(Interestingly, in the 1940s, the Irgun and Irish-Catholic revolutionaries were mutual admirers; the latter even claimed inspiration from the former, and were avid readers of Menachem Begin’s book ‘The Revolt.’)” Of course.

        But at least here Firentis, unlike over at Ala Hlelel’s “Bloated Time and the Death of Meaning,” comes clean about what he is really up to, that “beating them into submission” is his model for a peace process.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          You respond in length to cover up the fact that you have so little to add. For example it really sounds like you don’t know that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Like in our little conflict, there too you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. You are just a parrot for things you read elsewhere and you haven’t an original idea in your head.

          The IRA fought to have NI be part of a United Ireland. The UK fought to keep NI part of the UK. NI is part of the UK and its representatives sit in parliament (most of them). The Good Friday accords are a delightfully flowery face-saving measure used to allow the IRA to concede that they lost.

          The equivalent of Jewish self-determination is Irish self-determination. The Irish have a nation state and so do we have the right to one.

          Begin hated the British and fought against them. So did the IRA. That was the convergence of admiration.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        And after all the good and intelligent things the authors point out that men of good will can learn from The Troubles and their resolution, nothing could illuminate Firentis’, and by extension the Israeli Right’s, bad faith and ill will than this stubborn naysaying:

        “If there is something to learn from North Ireland it is that it is possible to beat the weaker side into accepting failure and then accepting a face saving agreement.”

        Firentis says:

        “The Protestant North Irish (who see themselves as British) accept that the Irish have the Republic of Ireland and have no claims on it. The Catholic North Irish accept that the British have a country.”

        Let us unpack this.

        Do the Jewish Israelis (who see themselves as Jewish Israelis) accept that the Palestinians have the Republic of Palestine and have no claims on it? No.

        Within the area of “the river to the sea” do the Palestinians have the equivalent of the Republic of Ireland? (That is, 83% of the land mass of the island of Ireland, before the conflict over the northern part of the island.) No. The potential numbers are reversed. All the Palestinians are asking for is 22% of the land. The Irish Republicans were asking for 83% + 17% (and settled for something more than 83%—read the article above). The Palestinians are asking for 0% + 22%.

        Have the Palestinian Arabs represented by the PLO accepted that the Israelis, including all of its Jewish Israelis, have a country? Yes. (And Hamas has said it will abide by PLO decisions on this.)

        Did the British ever ask either the people of the Republic of Ireland, or Sinn Fein, or Northern Irish Republicans to formally recognize either Britain or Northern Ireland as the nation state of the Protestant people? Or the nation state of the Protestant-British people? The absurdity of it answers the question.

        Could any discrepancies and contradictions and loose ends (including the RoR issue) be resolved in final status talks if the Israelis really wanted to pry their fists off of the land they covet, but do not own, and let two states live in peace? Yes.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          The Irish didn’t claim London was Irish nor insist that the existence of the United Kingdom was illegitimate nor teach their children that justice requires the destruction of the United Kingdom. The NI conflict was a conflict in which both parties (Irish, British) had their self-determination already. This is why the conflict has nothing to teach us except that the strong beat the weak into submission.

          The Irish never claimed London nor reject British (or for that matter English) self-determination. The Palestinians claim all of Israel and reject Jewish self-determination. So, when we get to the point where the Palestinians recognize Israel as the legitimate expression of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination then and only then can we talk about the similarities between the conflicts. And even then the more accurate historical analogy would still be the situation that existed in Ireland prior to 1922 when the Irish Free State was created on 22% of the British Isles given that prior to that the Irish did not exercise their right to self-determination. And the equivalent of NI in our little conflict would be Area C or whatever the territory will be that Israel will get to keep after the Palestinians get their interim state.

          Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Oh my. I just realized that the second wall of text was due to your realization that you messed up and posted something incredibly stupid. You, hahahaha, thought, hahahaha, that NI is not part of the UK any longer! Here is Ben coming along to tell me about the parallels between conflicts when he is missing the most basic knowledge about either. That is hilarious. As the great leader would say. Sad.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I will have the last laugh here, thank you. Look up the difference between the UK and Great Britain. Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain. So this kind of sums up how you traffic in misunderstandings and distortions and not quite right constructions, as well as an unjustified hauteur and snideness usually directed at the Palestinians but also at others.

            As for this burgeoning thicket of strained analogies and misappropriations, let’s just say that it’s a distraction from, a studious ignoring of, the author’s’ main points.

            Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      There are significant differences between the Northern Ireland and Israel/Arab conflicts. First of all, the Northern Ireland conflict is localized. Although there are numerous Catholic countries in Europe, none of them take any interest in the Catholic struggle of Northern Ireland, so in that sense, the Ulster Catholics have no support outside of the Republic of Ireland. This is unlike the situation of the Palestinians whose opposition to Israel is equally shared by the Arabs/Muslims of the surrounding states.

      Another difference is that the conflict is that although religion is a significant factor, the conflict is ultimately nationalistic. If all of Ireland were united, the Catholics of the united Ireland would have no problem with the Ulster Protestants living in the country (this only really became true with the secularization and modernization of Ireland that has occurred since the 1990’s, before that there were large cultural differences between Ulster and the Republic, but they have largely vanished). For the Arabs/Muslims, the very existence of ANY dhimmi Jewish state, within any borders is abhorrent and a violation of Islam. Even if a unitary state containing Arabs and Jews were to be established, there would still be major conflict between the groups, like we see in other multi-confessional, multi-ethnic states like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        In regards to your first paragraph, which you essentially cancel in your second paragraph, the struggle over Northern Ireland was indeed nationalistic, with religion being a cultural aspect of that struggle. The real issue was the savage British colonialism–research the British role in and subsequent response to the Irish Famine of 1845-1852. British colonialism—which as I recall Menachim Begin fought against, and, I will so rudely point out, resorted to terrorism in the struggle. As for you second paragraph, this is a right wing talking point simply refuted by the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Along with your ongoing interest in Feiglin, you are always bringing up the supposed “Saudi Peace Initiative”. Could you tell me what the Arab countries have done in order to sell this so-called “initiative” to the Israeli public, and what exactly are the terms of it, particularly regarding the future of the Palestinian refugees.

          I do recall one time, at least 5 years ago when newspaper ads were taken out in Israeli papers promoting it. Maybe I have missed some. But, in any case, what are the Arab countries involved in the “initiative” doing to show Israelis that the Arab countries would welcome peaceful relations with Israel? Particularly, the Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

          Reply to Comment