This post will look at the conditions that existed in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s that gave rise to the peace process there. I will then compare them to the situation in the Middle East today.
The start of the peace process is usually dated to the Hume-Adams talks in 1988. The peace did not stabilize until the implementation of power sharing for a third time in May 2007--19 years later. This illustrates that making peace in native-settler conflicts is a long process. The Hume-Adams talks were a dialogue between the leaderships of Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the two nationalist or Catholic political parties in Northern Ireland. They came about initially because both of the two party leaders, John Hume of the SDLP and Gerry Adams of the SDLP, wanted to convince the other of the validity of his view of the conflict. Adams blamed the conflict on the "illegal British occupation of the North of Ireland" whereas Hume saw it as a result of the division among the people (or peoples) of Ireland. Hume, like the Fine Gael party in the Republic, believed that it was up to the nationalists to reassure the unionists of their position within a united Ireland. Adams wanted to drive the British out and the unionists in.
The six rounds of dialogue in 1988 ended without a conclusion, but with both parties having exchanged formal position papers several times. The two leaders renewed the dialogue in 1992. By that time Hume had convinced the Northern Ireland Secretary to formally state in a speech that Britain had no selfish economic or military interest in Northern Ireland, a contention that Hume had argued during the talks with Adams. The dialogue in 1992 was exposed by a nationalist journalist who saw Adams emerging from Hume's home one day. The two leaders agreed to write the draft of a memorandum that Dublin could then show to London as the basis for a peace process sponsored by the two governments.
It has since been revealed that by the late 1980s the IRA was honeycombed with British double agents either working for the Special Branch (intelligence) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or for the British army. These agents were either blackmailed by the British into working for them, went over to the British to avenge punishment beatings administered by the IRA or joined the organization in order to serve as double agents. As a result of their efforts most of the IRA's (and INLA's ) military operations failed with many members being either arrested and imprisoned or killed in ambushes. At the same time the political wing of the movement, the IRA, was held back from achieving its potential electoral return due to public opposition to the armed struggle in general and to IRA atrocities and operations gone bad. Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and today the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, wanted to cash in their chips and attempt to reap as much benefit as they could from ending the armed struggle.
Sinn Fein's main problem was the IRA' s rank and file activists, who had been recruited to fight and go to prison for a united Ireland. So Adams and McGuinness argued to the unsophisticated but dedicated members that Sinn Fein would establish itself as a viable party in both parts of Ireland and then work to force a united Ireland on the British, the unionists, and Dublin. The argument was that Sinn Fein would grow large enough in the Republic that it could force the two main parties to include it in any coalition government and it would then force the main coalition party to carry through with a united Ireland. This was a case of hope prevailing over reality. Adams and McGuinness also assured the IRA that it would never have to disarm as it had not surrendered or been defeated.
The IRA called a ceasefire at midnight on the last day of August 1994 in response to the joint declaration (Downing St. Declaration) of the two governments laying out the principles of a peace process in December 1993. Six weeks after the IRA the three main loyalist paramilitary organizations (UDA, UVF, Red Hand Commando) also called a ceasefire and offered an apology to the families of their victims. The Ulster Unionist Party under the leadership of Jim Molyneaux was reluctant to enter into negotiations. Under British pressure, Molyneaux resigned as party leader after 16 years and was replaced by David Trimble, who at the time was seen as the hard-line candidate. Following elections in June 1996 negotiations began among the two governments and the main unionist parties, Alliance, and the SDLP. Sinn Fein was excluded because the IRA had broken its ceasefire in February 1996 with a massive bombing in London. After both the British and Irish governments were replaced in the summer of 1997 by governments seen as more sympathetic to the Republicans, the IRA declared a ceasefire in July 1997. In September 1997 Sinn Fein entered the negotiations. The Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley and the UK Unionists both walked out of the talks when Sinn Fein entered.
Serious bargaining took place for about six weeks from late February to early April 1998. On April 9, 1998 an agreement was signed known formally as the Belfast Agreement and informally as the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement called for power sharing in Northern Ireland between unionists and nationalists in exchange for Dublin giving up its claim to Northern Ireland and cooperation between Belfast and Dublin on a number of matters ranging from tourism to fisheries and forest management. Prisoners of all paramilitary organizations that had gone on ceasefire and recognized the agreement were to be released within two years. All parties were to use their maximum influence to ensure that decommissioning came about by the time prisoners were released. The IRA claimed that it would never disarm as it was not a party to the agreement.
In December 1999 power sharing began on a tentative basis and Dublin amended its constitution to end its territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
It would appear that at this point in time Hamas has not given up its belief in the political utility of armed struggle--a combination of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Neither for that matter have many elements within the rival Fatah party. Neither have the parties on the Israeli Right such as the Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party and the Beit Israel party and parts of the Likud. They are all opposed to a two-state solution of the conflict. Washington insists on mediating the peace process solo, with only a token role for the Europeans, the Russians, and the UN. The SDLP has no equivalent party in terms of strength (during the 1990s) among the Palestinians and the Israeli equivalent of the Ulster Unionist Party, Labor, has been rapidly shedding members of Knesset (MKs) since 1996. The Labor Party is incapable of heading a coalition government. It was Washington's Israeli peace partner from 1969 to 2000.
The IRA finally decommissioned its weapons (or the bulk of them) in September 2005, some 36 years after it split from the Official IRA. Fatah did not come under moderate leadership dedicated to a two-state solution without the armed struggle until 2005--some 47 years after it was created in Kuwait. Hamas was created in 1988. Don't expect a major change in policy for another 20 or 25 years at least. Remember the Provisional IRA and Fatah were/are secular organizations; Hamas is religious--its name means zeal.