Maintaining conflict, stopping bloodshed: Lessons from 15 years of peace in Northern Ireland

Although Republicans and Unionists still have extremely different ideas as to where the country should be heading they still accept each other’s right to imagine opposite identities and futures. Fifteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there is much Israelis and Palestinians can learn from Northern Ireland.

Unionist murals in Belfast (Haggai Matar)
Unionist murals in Belfast (Haggai Matar)

“No two conflicts are alike, and a solution that fits one conflict could never be copied successfully to anywhere else.” The same sentence, in minor variations, was said to me by countless members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, as well as journalists, academics and political activists during my short visit to Belfast about a month ago (which resulted in a piece published in Haaretz in Hebrew today). Had it not been coming from people who disagree on pretty much everything else and who support rival political parties, one might even assume they were all simply stating the party line.

All of them have a lot of experience talking to people like myself. Over the past couple of years most of them have either hosted or have been hosted by politicians, NGOs and journalists from conflict zones around the world trying to learn something from the model that put an end to the three decades of bloodshed during “The Troubles,” and the hundreds of years of conflict that preceded that period. But while it is true that one cannot simply copy and paste the Good Friday Agreement (signed this week 15 year ago, full text in PDF here) in order to create world peace, there is nothing wrong with tapping into the world of knowledge and experience the people of Northern Ireland have gained in order to try and rethink our own troubles here.

Republican mural of MP Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in prison (Haggai Matar)
Republican mural of MP Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in prison (Haggai Matar)

The first interesting thing about the GFA from an Israeli perspective is that it does not offer an end to the conflict. Our own history and bitter lessons learned from the Oslo Accords suggest that a temporary solution which avoids the fundamental core issues is a dangerous path leading possibly to nothing more than the maintenance of oppression in new and more sophisticated tools. This is not the case in Northern Ireland. Although the small stretch of land remains under British rule and the Republic of Ireland has changed its constitution to renounce all territorial claims to the north of the island, it is up to the people of Northern Ireland themselves to decide upon their own future in periodic polls. Devout Republicans are certain that time and the political process will bring forth a united Ireland.

At first glance this might appear to be more of a lose-lose situation than anything else. After decades of fighting “the long war,” the Republic Republicans have agreed to remain subordinate to the Crown, and after a hundred years of trying to trample any possibility of change in the status quo, Unionists have agreed to allow their enemies into power in what one day might force them to salute the tricolor flag.

But that is just what is so beautifully fascinating about the process both sides seem to be so committed to. The heart of the agreement, as I read it, rests on three principles: complete and utter mutual legitimacy to all forms of national or other identities and future aspirations (as long as these do not manifest in violence), a political power-sharing system that allows all parties to the conflict to be represented, and a joint recognition of the need for full civil equality and human rights for all under any current or future solution.

One of Belfast's "Peace Walls". Almost twice as high as the on in Israel-Palestine (Haggai Matar)
One of Belfast’s “Peace Walls”. Almost twice as high as the one in Israel-Palestine (Haggai Matar)

This means that Republicans can call themselves Irish, use the Irish flag, speak their language and promote their culture through state-sponsored schools, go on advocating a “one island – one state” solution in peaceful ways, sit in both the joint Assembly and Executive, promote cross-island policies in a ministerial council of North and South, all the while knowing that they will not suffer from discrimination for their politics or for being Catholics.

At the same time Unionists get to keep their own British identity, knowing that no border change will come without their consent and that their rights as civilians and as Protestant Brits will be safeguarded even if a united Ireland does come about one day. While it should be said that Unionists are feeling they got the raw end of the deal (the privileged and ruling powers always have more to give up on in peace than the oppressed), in return for sharing the power and giving up on certain privileges they had, they – as all people of the land – also gain an end to violence. So far, it seems that the majority of them are willing to accept that this better than having bombs go off in the city center on a regular basis.

In between the two polarized and equally legitimate identities peace is also gradually creating a new mixed identity, neither British nor Irish, but rather Northern Irish – an identity which 21 percent of the population now define themselves by. Although there is a fairly legitimate criticism of the GFA from the socialists – that the agreement forces the identity discourse and cross-community tensions to be an integral part of Northern Ireland’s politics, thus pushing aside the more important economic and class-based struggles that the poor of both sides should be conducting together – one might hope that time and new merged identity might bring about a new kind of politics that is not centered solely around “the conflict” (even though national sentiment is, as always, especially strong in the lower classes).

A new joint identity? End sectarianism (Haggai Matar)
A new joint identity? End sectarianism (Haggai Matar)

Taking the three-legged temporary agreement and trying to import parts of it to Israel-Palestine is not an easy thing to do, but it is worth the try. Putting the exact political structure aside, the foundations of such an agreement would have to be full equality and civil rights for all those living in the same stretch of land and under the same regime (be it one, two or more separate regimes), an ongoing political process to discuss the core issues around a negotiating table whereon all parties to the conflict that are willing to put aside their arms are represented (including Hamas, including settler groups, including civil society, perhaps including representatives of the two diasporas, perhaps including Arab states), and the coming to terms by all parties that we may find ourselves living together for a long time, calling the same places in different names, waving different flags, speaking different languages – without being petrified to death each of the others’ will and aspirations. Wouldn’t that be an interesting (re)start to the long journey for peace?

Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on Republican walls (Haggai Matar)
Solidarity with Palestinian prisoners Khader Adnan and Hana Shalabi on Republican walls (Haggai Matar)