Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Northern Ireland Troubles

Not only is Northern Ireland internally the closest settler and foreign society to Israel, the Northern Ireland Troubles that lasted from late 1968 to 1998 are the closest native-settler conflict to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The other two contenders are the conflicts between the Native American Indians (or Amerindians) and the United States and the conflict between the ANC and the South African government from 1961 to 1994.

The conflict between the Indians and the settlers can be instantly dismissed as not very comparable because Indians are a racial group rather than a people--they are composed of hundreds of peoples. These peoples fought individual conflicts with the settlers, often aligning themselves with various of the European powers: the French, the British, the Spanish, and the United States itself. At best they formed small alliances or confederations of peoples to take on the British and the Americans as during Pontiac's Rebellion of 1759 during the French and Indian War, during the early 1790s in the Ohio Valley, during the War of 1812, during the Red River War of 1874-75, and during the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After the end of the War of 1812 the Indians lacked a powerful foreign ally--the Spanish were a weak ally until 1819. Thus, after the American Revolution the Indians rarely proved to be an existential threat to the American settlers as the Arabs were until 1982.

The South African liberation struggle is a much closer fit. But the whites in South Africa were always a small minority. The ANC was never a serious military challenge to the South African government. In fact internally within South Africa it was the paramilitary South Africa Police rather than the South Africa Defense Force that was responsible for fighting the "terrorist" threat. And although there were divisions among both the black majority and the white minority, these were never nearly as deep as the divisions on both sides that characterized the Northern Ireland and Middle East conflicts.

The Northern Ireland conflict can be said to have had four or five logical start points: the oldest was the Ulster plantation of 1607 when entrepreneurs began settling Scots and English families in Ulster; the next is 1886 when the unionists first organized in opposition to the first Home Rule Bill; the next is 1912 when the Ulster Covenant was signed by nearly all the unionist families in the province in opposition to Home Rule and the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force was organized; the next was the creation of Northern Ireland through partition in 1921-22; and finally October 1968 when a march of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was attacked by Paisleyites. The last is the conventional starting point of The Troubles.

The Troubles began as a reactionary unionist backlash to a nationalist and liberal drive for reforms that would end the inequality in the province. This soon escalated into major interethnic strife in August 1969 that led to intervention by the British army in order to restore order. The interethnic strife was accompanied by widespread ethnic cleansing of Catholics from mixed neighborhoods in Belfast and Derry and some ethnic cleansing of Protestants from Catholic neighborhoods in retaliation. The Provisional Republican Movement was created as a traditionalist "splinter" group from the mainstream Irish Republican Army (IRA) in December 1969 and January 1970 with some assistance from a group of rebel ministers in the Dublin government. (The ministers offered to provide arms to the splitters as long as they did not operate in the Republic of Ireland.) In early 1971 the Provisional IRA began an insurgency against the British state in Northern Ireland and the Official IRA soon followed suit. The two groups competed for over a year until the Official IRA declared a ceasefire in May 1972 that soon became permanent. In late 1974 the splinter Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) split from the Official IRA and it began an armed struggle in 1979 with the assassination of the Conservative Party spokesman on Northern Ireland, Airey Neave, in the parking lot of the House of Commons.

Over the thirty years of The Troubles there were some 3500 deaths due to conflict violence and thousands more wounded, many maimed for life. The majority of those killed were killed by republicans with the vast majority of these killed by the Provisional IRA. Republicans were responsible for more Catholics killed than were the British security forces. The prostate loyalists killed over 900, mostly nationalists but a few unionists--some killed in intergroup feuds and others in cases of mistaken identity, as well as a few members of the security forces. The loyalist paramilitaries were heavily involved in criminal activities such as protection rackets and building fraud. The republicans were also involved in criminal activities but mainly as a means of funding their anti-British armed struggle. With the loyalists the struggle was more used as a cover to legitimize criminal activities.

The unionists were a majority of over 60 percent of the province's population at the time of partition and this has dropped to just over 50 percent by the end of the century. But on the island as a whole the unionists are about a fifth to a quarter of the total population. Thus there is a situation of a double majority/double minority--the nationalists are a majority on the island, but a minority in Northern Ireland; the unionists are a minority on the island but a majority in the province. This is similar to the status of Arabs and Jews within Israel and the region. But unlike the Middle East or Southern Africa there is no regional core and periphery in the British Isles.

The goal of the republicans had always been politicide--the destruction of the British province on the island of Ireland. This is similar to the Arab goal of destroying Israel before 1979. And this is still the goal of many Palestinians, especially the Islamists of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If Northern Ireland were destroyed as a British province the unionists would have the choice of either living under Irish rule or emigrating across the Irish Sea to a Britain that is in many ways culturally foreign to them. This is the same dilemma that whites faced in South Africa and that Jews face in Israel. The main difference is that as British citizens the unionists have a guaranteed refuge in mainland Britain, whereas many Afrikaners lack a natural refuge (many English-speakers have emigrated to Britain and Australia), and many Jews would lack a natural refuge.

In Northern Ireland the republicans backing armed struggle were always a minority within the nationalist population of the North as a whole. Sinn Fein never polled more than 40 percent of the nationalist vote and usually polled about a third. The remainder went to the SDLP, which was opposed to armed struggle but did support Irish unity through persuading the government in London to coerce the unionists into a united Ireland. Among the Palestinians armed struggle has since 1948 always been a position with majority support as far back as surveys have been taken. There is no real Palestinian equivalent of the SDLP in terms of the support that it received. The closest thing is Abbas's Palestinian Authority after he took over following Arafat's death in November 2004.

The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 was essentially a negotiation among the British and Irish governments, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the SDLP. The republican and loyalist paramilitary parties were restricted to largely negotiating terms for prisoner releases and decommissioning of weapons. Throughout the negotiations the UUP refused to speak directly with the Sinn Fein delegates, whom they regarded as terrorists and murderers.

In my next post I will examine the conditions that led to the Northern Ireland peace process and compare them to those that prevail in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

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