IRA compromise good for Middle East

By Lee Feder

On May 8, a historic sharing of power will take place. Far from the Middle East and isolated from Kashmir, one of the oldest religious conflicts involving territory will advance toward resolution. On that date, the Ulster faction (or Democratic Unionists) will unite with Sinn Fein (representing the Republican Nationalists) to form a coalition government in Northern Ireland.

While many of our generation think of Ireland as the Emerald Isle of Guinness, Jameson and St. Patrick, the conflict over control of the six counties of Northern Ireland was as vehement and violent as any other. The evolution of the Northern Ireland problem serves as a model for approaching other religiously-infused territorial debates.

Years ago, terrorist attacks related to Northern Ireland were as common as attacks in Israel are today. The minority Roman Catholic population supported the Nationalist position of uniting the six counties with the country of Ireland. Sinn Fein is the political face of the Republicans with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as its militia. Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, has long been sworn enemies with Unionists (or Ulster) and their leader, currently the Reverend Ian Paisley. The Unionists are generally Protestant and advocate continued and strengthened ties to Britain. Complicating the issue is that the six counties of Northern Ireland share the Emerald Isle yet have a Protestant (Ulster) majority.

Modeling the Israelis as the Ulster party and the Palestinians as the Republicans reveals that the two conflicts do not significantly differ. In both cases, geography favors the rebels (Palestinians and Republicans). Similarly, the Unionist establishment is in the majority while the Republican rebels are in the minority. While currently Israelis outnumber Palestinians in Israel, this has resulted from the exodus of Palestinians to surrounding nations, as if the Nationalists left Northern Ireland for Ireland proper.

Given the apt, if imperfect, comparison, the process endured in Northern Ireland needs to be applied in Israel. Decades ago, the rhetoric from both Catholics and Protestants was hateful and divisive. The IRA was actively bombing Ulster targets in the hopes of forcing the British to relinquish control and make the Protestants cede their aspirations of an even more British Northern Ireland.

From 1968 until around 1998, the Troubles (a period of violence like the Second Intifada) dominated the lives of people in Northern Ireland. The fatigue brought on by years of killing and bloodshed ultimately led Sinn Fein and the Unionists to sit down together. Public rhetoric changed and people began to believe peace was not only possible, but attainable in their lifetimes.

President Clinton helped foster better relations between the two sides throughout the 1990’s, which ultimately led to the Good Friday Accord in 1998. Continued positive relations resulted in the most significant development to date when in 2005 the IRA announced its intention to disarm entirely.

The evolution of the conflict in Ireland teaches us several important lessons. First, the rhetoric people use to discuss their enemies matters. Up until official rhetoric softened, public sentiment remained focused on “hatred.” Second, violence, while having a necessary place in territorial and religious conflicts, cannot permanently resolve the situation. It can, however, lead the populations of both sides to tire of death and grief and ultimately make them more willing to coexist. Finally, incremental peace agreements are the only method for arriving at an equitable solution.

Peace requires not only a legal agreement, but significant changes in culture and mentality. The latter alterations occur slowly over time and depend on building trust between the two adversaries. Given sufficient minor concessions, the sides can ultimately disarm and focus on resolving the crux of the problem, as the Unionists and Republicans are now doing.

While the problem in the Middle East might involve more militancy and stronger passions now, it is but a reflection of other territorial-religious strife elsewhere in the world. Employing the same strategy used to arrive at the historic May 8 transfer of power in Northern Ireland could lead to the cession of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities and Mideast peace in the coming decades.