From Belfast to Jerusalem: Lessons from Northern Ireland for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

On the day after St. Patrick’s Day, a panel was convened on Capitol Hill to discuss the lessons learned from the Irish peace process, and reflect on their applicability to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Titled, "From Belfast to Jerusalem," the panel brought together: EU Ambassador to Washington, former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton; Sarah Brophy, a former assistant to President Clinton; Irish Times’ Washington Bureau Chief, Denis Staunton; and Daniel Levy, a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Bruton, who served as Ireland’s Prime Minister during a critical phase in the Irish peace effort, cited several factors that contributed to the success of that process. First and foremost among these, was the recognition by a critical mass, on all sides, that continued violence and the status quo had become unacceptable. This led to a realization by leaders, of most of the parties involved, that dialogue and negotiations provided a way forward.

To facilitate inclusion in negotiations, preconditions were kept to a minimum. Each side, Bruton observed, was allowed to maintain their dreams, while accepting the right of the other to their dreams, as well.

The only essential precondition, he noted, was the cessation of violence.

But, even here, some flexibility was needed, observed Denis Staunton; and so, despite repeated acts of violence that occurred throughout the 90s, these were never allowed to derail the process.

All participants agreed that external players also played a critical role. Throughout the conflict’s long history, outside parties had acted as enablers of terrorism and violence. With the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, Britain and the Irish Republic, in effect, pulled the plug on the competing groups in Northern Ireland, setting the stage for the talks to advance.

So, too, the change in the U.S. attitude and approach was important. Whereas, out of "misplaced sentimentality," some Irish Americans had funded the Irish Republican Army (in effect, supporting its intransigence), President Clinton authored a different path. Under his leadership, not only was Irish nationalist leader Gerry Adams given a visa and some recognition by the U.S.; but the President used that recognition as leverage to prod Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm led by Adams, into negotiations.

This issue of U.S. Presidential leadership was repeatedly emphasized as central to the success of the process. Clinton’s efforts to moderate Sinn Fein, his full support of his appointed envoy, George Mitchell, and later President Bush’s cajoling of unionist hard-liner, Ian Paisley, helped move the process along at critical points.

All of the participants spoke of Mitchell’s important role, initially as a "listener" who gained the trust of all sides. As Bruton noted, "he listened them to death," allowing each side to talk until they were tired of talking and began to listen.

Mitchell’s patience served the process well, as did his ability to help each side sort out what they needed from what they wanted.

During the discussion, several similarities were noted between the Irish and Middle East conflicts: the competing narratives of victimhood; the ways that the "other" was demonized, making trust more difficult; the role played by of external enablers in the "diaspora" in perpetuating the conflict, and the nagging sense of the conflict’s intractability that sometimes led to despair.

These were all overcome in Ireland. The process, and its outcome, though imperfect, has produced results. This was in evidence in the response to the recent acts of violence, which witnessed leaders and majorities, on both sides, come together in support of the hard-won peace.

The situation is not solved. Tough decisions remain to be made. But the conflict that once ravaged the North – where only violence was believed to hold the way forward – has been replaced by peace and a shared commitment to seek solutions through democratic action and negotiation.

As Mitchell himself noted, "there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. I saw it happen in Northern Ireland, although, admittedly, it took a very long time. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering, and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East." This, if anything, is the lesson Belfast provides for Jerusalem.

Now, of course, there are profound differences between the Irish and the Middle East conflicts. As one participant observed, the Middle East’s hardliners on both sides are not yet war-weary, still believing that violence can alter the situation in their favor. External enablers still provoke and embolden their respective sides. And, as Levy noted, Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land at an alarming rate. (Imagine, he asked, if Britain had continued to transfer its people to alter the demographics of the North of Ireland during the peace process?) Finally, while the Irish outcome allowed for creative ambiguity – allowing future generations to democratically determine whether the North would remain within the United Kingdom or join the rest of the island – the Israeli-Palestinian case does not. As long as "two states for two peoples" remains the preferred outcome (unless one wishes to condemn Palestinians to generations of apartheid under occupation), the tough decisions must be made by this generation.

Despite their deep differences, the words of Mitchell ring true: conflicts are created and sustained by human beings, and they can be ended by human beings.

Mitchell certainly has his work cut out for him, but if the President remains committed to an outcome and uses his power of persuasion to alter the political dynamic as Clinton did, the Belfast lessons may provide a way forward.