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by Dean Godson


Links Between the Two Conflicts

The Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian disputes have long been the subject of comparative study - and mutual interest. Consider the tangled thread that links the two conflicts. Much of Israeli emergency law dealing with terrorism is the lineal descendent of Britain's own emergency law in Ireland, promulgated between 1916 and 1921 after the Easter Uprising. It was then replicated by the British Mandate in Palestine from the 1920s onwards. This corpus was, in turn, taken over by the Israeli authorities after 1948 and was later applied in the territories after 1967, with modifications. So one can say that the current British emergency legislation, or at least that of it which remains in Northern Ireland (and, indeed, Irish government emergency legislation in the South), is actually a first cousin of the measures in effect in Israel.

A second connecting thread is that many officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was disbanded in 1921 after the British left, joined the new Palestine Police. Later, Yitzhak Shamir studied the IRA's 1916-21 campaign as leader of the anti-British LEHI underground, and indeed adopted the name "Michael" (after Michael Collins) as his nom de guerre. When the IRA campaign was renewed in 1969-1970, its leaders in turn studied the Irgun and the LEHI campaigns, although they themselves were ideologically totally unsympathetic to Zionism, let alone the sort of nationalism that was embodied by Begin and Shamir.

More recently, there has been a connection in the person of Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks in Northern Ireland from 1996 to 1998 and then came up with the Mitchell Commission plan during the very last phase of the Barak government in 2000-2001.

The most eye-catching aspect of the linkages between the two conflicts has been a grassroots phenomenon. Traditionally, territory has been demarcated by symbols. Obviously, one can tell a Catholic/Republican area because Irish flags are flying and in Unionist/Protestant areas Union Jacks are fluttering away. But in recent years, particularly after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, these have been supplemented in Catholic/Republican neighborhoods with PLO flags and with large wall murals of Arafat. Similarly, Unionist/Protestant zones are covered with Israeli flags. In fact, Northern Ireland is one of the very few parts of Europe where there is a very wide measure of popular support in the majority community for the State of Israel.

While there are evident limitations inherent in the comparison between the two situations, the significant point is that many in the British government and military believe there is such an analogy. This is of particular significance because, as a consequence of the Troubles of the last 30 years, Northern Ireland has become the defining national security experience for that generation of people who now have stewardship for British policy across the world. The defining experience of Harold MacMillan's generation was in the trenches of the First World War. More recently, for Jim Callaghan's and Edward Heath's generation, the defining experience was the Second World War. For this generation, it is the narrow ground of Northern Ireland. But what does this mean in practice?

Many British Officials Now Perceive Both Unionists and Israelis as "Afrikaaners"

Many British officials see a strong resemblance between the Israelis and the Unionists. They see Israel as a settler population that has lived above its means in political, ideological, and military terms - and which has to be pulled down a peg or two. The only question for them is how this best can be brought about. In Northern Ireland, it entailed dethroning the Unionists from their hegemonic majoritarian position and persuading them to accept a new settlement that, by the standards of traditional Unionism, is well short of their historic aspirations.

The British government, along with wide swathes of the British intelligentsia, has made an implicit moral adjudication to consign each of those groups to malefactor status. In Israel's case, the British are dealing with a nation-state, while the other is a sub-national group which is a component part of the United Kingdom. Put more crudely, both are now perceived as "Afrikaaners," who have driven out indigenous peoples with a greater right to the land. This attitude became officially enshrined, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, after 1997 with the advent of the Blair government.

It is instructive to see how the British Foreign Office website presents the Northern Ireland problem to the outside world. Peter Hain, then a Foreign Office minister, told an audience in New Delhi on 25 November 2000:

In 1921 the Irish Free State was established. That left the six counties of Northern Ireland with their majority Protestant population in the United Kingdom - i.e., that we talk about the partition of what was the original 32 counties of Ireland under British rule. But it was an unsustainable settlement [this was about Northern Ireland], the Protestant majority, i.e., pro-British majority in the North [note the word "North" is an Irish nationalist term; Hain does not call it "Northern Ireland," which is its correct term both in British law and in international law and as such it is recognized throughout the world] ruling oppressively in a devolved administration and denying the Catholic minority basic human rights which it felt could only be achieved by reunification with the independent Irish state in the south, an objective which some nationalists pursued by terrorism.

This is to cast the conflict in Irish Republican terms. In other words, a representative of the British government basically sees Irish nationalists, who seek to dismember his own country, as being in the right. What British governments have said since 1997 is: "Yes, the IRA is terrible; yes, IRA attacks are terrible, but it was the conduct of Northern Ireland's Unionists which made such terrorism inevitable." That mirrors how many British figures see suicide attacks on the Jewish state: terrible, yes, but the sure consequence of Israeli oppression.

Now Blair certainly expresses himself more cautiously on these matters when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (though not necessarily his wife!); and his perspective on how to handle the Unionists is not always the same as the Northern Ireland Office, the department of state responsible for running Ulster on a day-to-day basis. Blair effectively says, "I'll be tough on terrorism. But I will also be equally tough on the causes of terrorism." The implicit cause of terrorism is a state run on Unionist majoritarian lines in Northern Ireland. And he certainly views many of Israel's current policies as the root cause of terrorism there.

This is where Blair's pragmatism vis-a-vis both the Northern Ireland Office and vis-a-vis the more traditional Arabist approaches within the British Foreign Office come into play. The Blairites know that neither Northern Ireland nor Israel can be wished away in this generation. Whether Northern Ireland should have been created originally or whether Israel should have been created originally is not really the point; the fact is that neither entity can be destroyed in the here and now. Indeed, if the name of the game is to persuade both Unionists and Israelis to abandon their hardline redoubts, then the first phase of the end game of a peace process, at least, requires a charm offensive. The view was expressed most succinctly by Blair's long-time principal private secretary, Sir John Holmes, who was effectively national security advisor under the British system and is now Ambassador in Paris. According to this analysis, we British ought to get close to the Israelis and understand them, the better to be able to corral them into the kind of settlement that we want (recognizing, of course, that the United States has the lead role in bringing this about).

The Consent Principle

What does persuading both Unionists and Israelis to relinquish their high perches where they are "arrogantly" and "stubbornly" situated mean in practice? The first way to do that is to loudly acknowledge their right to exist. Blair's reputation in Britain as a friend of Israel and of the Jewish community in general rests upon that belief. By the standards of the contemporary British consensus within the intelligentsia, that may be a quite courageous position to hold. It echoes the consent principle which has governed British policy throughout the Troubles, recognizing Northern Ireland's existing status as long as the majority of its population wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom, and not to be coerced unilaterally by political or military means into a united Ireland. In parallel, Israel has a right to exist and Northern Ireland has a right to exist through the formula of the consent principle. Beyond that, though, almost everything else is up for grabs.

Perceiving Different Kinds of Terrorism

Since September 11th there is something called the "international ideology of Northern Ireland," which has found particular expression in the post-September 11 anti-terrorism legislation of 2001 and in subsequent British measures. It holds that terrorism for no rational political purpose, such as the re-creation of a global caliphate, has to be subject to the most stringent responses. However, there are various kinds of terrorism, and the British government does not put Palestinian terrorism or Northern Irish terrorism into that category. In fact, Blair explicitly separates both of those terrorist campaigns because both are motivated, as he sees it, by a rational political purpose, namely, to obtain a fair deal for the Palestinians in the territories and to secure a fair deal for Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland.

In fact, there have been over 3,000 fatalities from terrorism since the current outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. Thus, Blair is seen as being very tough on American-related terrorism, but specifically excluding terrorists who had killed a very substantial number of British citizens. Indeed, the UK government was perhaps the only government in the world that did not use the events of September 11th as an excuse to engage in a crackdown on its own insurrectionists.

Abandoning Belief in Counter-Insurgency

Now why was this? There is a profound belief, which existed in official British circles prior to 1997 but which skyrocketed since then, that tough measures against terrorism in Northern Ireland and against Palestinian terrorism are massively counter-productive, and that they are especially counter-productive once the British have selected partners for peace from within the relevant insurgent movements. In the case of Northern Ireland, the partner for peace that they have selected is the current generation of the Sinn Fein leadership, personified by Gerry Adams. Indeed, members of the security forces have said they did their utmost to ensure that certain senior Republicans remained alive, to sustain them for the day that they would be able to become partners in what they regard as an equitable political settlement.

Now part of this rests on a belief in tolerating ambiguity in the renunciation of physical force by that particular cadre of insurgents who have been selected as partners until such time as they can supposedly shut down violence for good. Of course, in exchange for affording them that space, Adams and others continue to secure further concessions through the movement's residual capacity for violence. The British fear that if the Sinn Fein politicos are undermined, "mainstream" Republican gunmen will bolt to the dissident Real IRA. This is similar to the line of reasoning that unless concessions are made to Arafat, Palestinians will move over to Hamas.

The arguments for indulging insurgent, revolutionary movements are wonderfully flexible. In the first phase, the "oppressors" must indulge the "moderates." As time goes on, that changes to the "pragmatic hardliners," who are the only faction that can deliver. There are vague echoes here of the mission of Alistair Crooke, the former MI6 officer who served in Northern Ireland and who has been seeking to bring Hamas into the fold as the only people who can "deliver" on a settlement. Judging by past form, future British and EU diplomatic efforts may focus increasingly upon influencing the less "ideological" element within Likud. Many British officials see Hamas and Likud as mutually reinforcing "hardliners."

A key theme in this mindset is that there can be no purely military defeat of insurgents. If this is true, then one has to make a massive number of political concessions. Some of the more robust elements within the British system believe that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force which was at the cutting edge of the struggle against terrorism, was stopping between 7 and 8, and in some cases even 9 out of 10 IRA operations during the latter years of the Troubles. Indeed, year by year we learn just how riddled the IRA was with British informers. But notwithstanding that achievement, the British government decided to give disproportionate political concessions to ensure that the IRA never had "an excuse" to go back to armed struggle. In other words, they believe that the IRA, like the Palestinians, has a great number of very good excuses to go back "to war." That process, of depriving the insurgents of "excuses," inevitably comes at the expense of Unionists and the Israelis.

But what is the definition of victory in Northern Ireland? The British do not define "victory" as the military defeat of the IRA. Firstly, they do not believe it was possible, but even if it was possible, they do not believe in such a defeat as a matter of principle. Victory, as far as they see it in Northern Ireland, is to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA to accept the use of democratic methods. In other words, they have a methodological definition of victory, but have no particular end point of a settlement in mind (which reinforces instability by convincing Republicans that "one last heave," whether politically or militarily, will do the trick).

Indeed, one unique aspect of policy in Northern Ireland is that the British state is well-nigh unique in advertising, quite openly, that it does not really mind if it is dismembered - subject, of course, to the consent principle. All it wants is that the IRA and the Republican movement - in the main - abandon full-scale violence, and then all other roads are open. To ensure that abandonment of violence, the British will maintain the pace of concessions, at least for as long as the Unionists are prepared to tolerate them. And because the British have been working on the Unionist community for so long, they reckon that they have a very good chance of maintaining that grip on events.

Dean Godson is Associate Editor of the "Spectator". His latest book is "Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism" (2004), a study of the Ulster Unionist Party leader. This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on his presentation at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on September 2, 2004.

This article appeared October 1, 2004 as a Jerusalem Viewpoint (#523), which is published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (


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