Saturday, June 4, 2011

What Ireland's Troubles Can Teach The Middle East

Publihsed in Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 31, 2011

The greatest symbol of hope for peace in Middle East is a frail, little old lady wearing a frumpy looking hat, arrayed in an emerald green dress, her back bowed with age, a sensible purse hung, as always, from her left arm. She is known to her admirers as Brenda, to the rest of the world as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the second of that name.

The same day that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met in Washington to repeat the seemingly same old, tried, frustrating, enraging back and forth blathering about the terms for peace in Palestine, good ole Brenda was wrapping up the first visit ever of a British monarch to Ireland in the nearly nine hundred years of bloody, often savage history between those two countries and peoples.

Her symbolic visit signaled that peace had finally and for all time come to a conflict which both uncannily parallels that of Palestine, but offers the best blueprint for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland pitted two irreconcilable people of different cultures and religions in a life or death fight over historic homelands. Most similarly, was the implied existential threat to one, the British Unionists, because the Irish Republican Army refused to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s right to exist. The British Army undertook a brutal occupation of nationalist neighborhoods where only the Irish tricolor flag ever flew.

The tribal violence of The Troubles seemed intractable until then British Prime Minster Tony Blair uttered an historic ultimatum to the belligerents: “The peace train is leaving the station,” and anyone not on board would be left behind because it was, really and truly, leaving the station. That was because the Irish Troubles had what the Middle East troubles do not have -- an actual framework for a final peace deal presented to the deadly enemies before they sat down to negotiate, which they had to accept, or get left behind.

The Irish peace train did leave, and everyone did get on board and it has arrived, after years of travelling, and its passengers have disembarked – Her Majesty being maybe the last to get off. The Irish peace treaty did not separate two warring peoples into two states, but accomplished the, perhaps, more difficult task of joining two such peoples into one state.

So it was disappointing the hear President Obama in his speech last week seemingly dismiss the three things which would constitute a real peace train which could actually leave the station:

1. The necessary participation of Hamas in a unified Palestinian government to negotiate peace. Hamas is just as the IRA was – a bloody-minded terrorist group which refuses to accept the right of its enemy to exist, but whose participation is the sine qua non of peace talks. As the IRA accepted Northern Ireland’s right to exist as a result of a peace treaty, not as a pre-condition to peace talks, so too will Hamas.

2. The presentation of an actual peace treaty to the belligerents. The United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations (the Group of Four) must present to the belligerents, and the world, the unalterable pre-amble to the final peace treaty: Two independent states with the unalienable right to exist within their pre-1967 borders.

3. Recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations. Obama threatened to cast the sole veto of this proposal in September. Creating the “fact on the ground” of such a state would be the peace train’s tooting its whistle as its wheels begin to roll. Such an event would finally bring the pre-requisite equality needed between two states, for those two states to negotiate with each other.

The possible future of Palestine was on full display last week in Ireland: The once reviled British monarch mobbed by adoring crowds, while the old IRA muttered about unifying Ireland and was roundly ignored. The guns stayed silent.

Brenda’s historic arrival came not on a royal jet, but on a peace train that was imposed upon two enemies, and not of their own creation – that is the model to imitate.

Joe Gannon, a resident of Northampton, reported from Northern Ireland in 1981 and
1985. He can be reached at