One of the great misconceptions in Middle East policy is that Israel should deal with Hamas and or Hezbollah because the British dealt with terrorists in making peace in Northern Ireland. That is as relevant as saying Michael Jackson should play Quarterback for the Tennessee Titans because both he and Vince Young are African Americans. There is little relationship between the two.
It is true that Britain and the IRA negotiated for peace, but there were MAJOR differences to the Middle East including;
- The IRA did not threaten the very existence of Great Britain. Hamas promises to destroy Israel as a Jewish State
- At the time negotiation with the British began, the IRA “military operations” were in a decline and so was morale, they felt that their positions were growing more tenuous. Both Hezbollah and Hamas see no reason to make peace because they feel their military strategy is working
- There was no regional power feeding the IRA the way Syria and Iran feed the Palestinian terrorists
- Bringing in the terrorists was not the absolute priority at the outset of the Northern Irish peace process and there were “preconditions” placed on the IRA to be involved with it.
These are just the tip of the iceberg, below is a full analysis of how the Northern Ireland Conflict is different from Israel’s battle with terrorists today:
1. The British state never had an overriding selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland. Yet, it still took thirty years to find a solution to the conflict.
One of the central (and most misguided) mantras of Irish republicanism was the notion that it was the nefarious, “colonial” interference of the British state in Ireland that was at the root of the conflict. It was this interference that was assumed to underpin the existence of the Northern Irish state and thereby stand as the only real obstacle to Irish unity and a harmonious co-existence for all peoples on the island, whatever their creed or origin. The reality is that the British state had no real geopolitical or strategic interest in maintaining a domineering presence on Irish shores, north or south. If this was in doubt at all before 1989, it was certainly confirmed by the end of the Cold War. As the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, officially affirmed in 1990, Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” The chief impetus behind British government policy toward Northern Ireland over the last thirty years or more has been to stabilize rather than dominate and, where possible, to withdraw itself from the affairs of the province. Northern Ireland has been a burden in financial, military, and political terms. Indeed, at some points – such as the first half of the 1970s – it might be said that the British were rather more willing to accede to a united Ireland than the Irish government. In other words, even though its immediate interests were not under serious threat in Northern Ireland, it took the British state almost thirty years to successfully play the role of “honest broker.” It is an obvious point that many other states do not have the strategic room for maneuver afforded to the British over this period.
2. The British state’s failure to establish constitutional red lines (an unambiguous commitment to preserving Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, for example) was a hugely destabilizing factor in the early years of “the Troubles.”
The state actors tied to the conflict – the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic – were not directly responsible for the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in 1968. Nevertheless, it could be argued that their behavior in the following years, 1969-1975, contributed significantly to the escalation of the crisis.
During this period, the British government failed to develop a coherent political or security strategy as it lurched from one position to another in an effort to respond to successive crises. Particularly damaging was the fact that senior British politicians (including Prime Minister Harold Wilson) openly discussed the scenario that Britain might withdraw from Northern Ireland. This was destabilizing for a number of reasons. First, it encouraged the IRA to believe that the British were wobbling and that one last push (a surge in violence, or a bombing campaign in England) might force them over the edge. Second, this move caused suspicion and distrust in its relationship with the Irish government, which was terrified that a withdrawal of British troops would lead to a vacuum of power and perhaps even a civil war on Irish soil in which they would have to intervene in the north. Third, the perception that they could not trust even their own government for protection contributed to an upsurge in violence from elements of the loyalist community, who organized themselves in paramilitary groups against the threat from the IRA. It is no surprise that 1972 marked the nadir of the conflict, with more lives lost in that year than any other. That this should have been so was a consequence of the British decision, first to suspend local government in the province and then to talk to the IRA shortly afterwards – a move that fueled the perception that withdrawal was imminent. What followed was a sharp increase in sectarian blood-letting as rival groups sought to strengthen their position ahead of the carve-up of power that was expected to follow that withdrawal.
3. It was necessary to establish a constitutional “bottom line” to end the instability on which the terrorist campaign had thrived.
After a period of uncertainty in the early 1970s, the British government affirmed its commitment to a constitutional “bottom line” on Northern Ireland from 1975: the “principle of consent,” which held that the territory would remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of the people there wished it to be so. With this unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, the British thereby settled in for a long-haul approach to Northern Ireland, ending their flirtation with withdrawal and postponing constitutional experiments for the foreseeable future. This delivered a huge blow to the IRA campaign and it was no surprise that the IRA faced some of its worst years – losing support and operational capability – in the immediate aftermath. By focusing their energies on a security crackdown and emphasizing the importance of economic regeneration over political innovation, the British effectively abandoned the possibility that they might settle upon a peaceful solution to the conflict within a short time frame. But in so doing, they also took the initiative away from those violent groups that were prepared to use the instrument of spectacular violence to influence political events at important junctures. It was this change of tactics that forced the IRA to adopt its own “long war” strategy – effectively a tacit admission of weakness on the part of republicans. Under this strategy the IRA abandoned the effort to maintain a “people’s army” existence – as it had pursued during the early 1970s – and instead embraced the closed structures of the classic terrorist organization: the secret army, structured around small cells. The rationale behind the shift was to create a leaner, self-sustaining organization that was less vulnerable to the vagaries of community support. The corollary of this, however, was that the IRA had made it far easier for the British authorities to concentrate their resources against this smaller, ultimately more manageable, form of terrorist grouping.
4. The close relationship between the British and the Irish governments undermined the terrorist campaign, but only when it became clear that the primary interest of both states was to achieve peace and stability. This had not always been the case. As alluded to above, the actions of the Irish and the British governments had contributed to suspicion and instability from 1968 to 1975. From 1975, with the British settled upon a long-haul presence in Northern Ireland, there was a more solid foundation for improved relations, particularly on the issue of security. Though there were still tensions between the two governments, the destabilizing prospect of British withdrawal was removed from the political horizon. Crucially, the Irish state’s position towards Northern Ireland evolved significantly over the course of the conflict. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had maintained its rhetorical commitment to Irish unification: a position it held without actually being able to manage – whether financially or militarily – the process of British withdrawal. Increasingly, however, the Irish state came to emphasize that its priority was to achieve stability. This position reached full maturity in 1998 when the Irish government successfully pushed through a public referendum that abandoned Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, which had made a territorial claim to Northern Ireland. In so doing, the Irish government fatally undermined the Irish republican project that drove the IRA’s campaign. The leadership of militant republicanism had long recognized the importance of winning the Irish government and the Irish people to the cause of Irish unity. The explicit confirmation that neither could be won in this way – unmistakably demonstrated by the referendum of 1998 – was a seminal moment in forcing the IRA to redefine its strategy.
5. The British state, in its approach to Irish republican terrorism, has nearly always countenanced the possibility of engaging in dialogue with those terrorists who have threatened it, whether directly or through intermediaries.
At the highest level of the British body politic there has long existed an impulse – not always dominant, but always under the surface – that seeks to establish contact and enter into negotiations with terrorists. The very foundation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s came after the British government negotiated a settlement with Michael Collins, the key military leader of the insurgency against the British presence in Ireland. In regard to Northern Ireland, since 1968, this attitude has informed the approach of successive cabinets, as well as the security services. When it was discovered in late 1993 that John Major’s Conservative government had been maintaining close contact with the IRA, the news was greeted with dismay and outrage across a spectrum of opinion; all the more so, when it emerged that secret meetings between representatives of the IRA and civil servants from the British government had taken place just two days after the Warrington bomb of March 1993, which had killed two young children and injured more than fifty civilians. 10 Major had previously told the House Commons that face-to-face contact with the IRA would “turn my stomach.” 11 Yet, in actual fact, Major’s government was simply reviving contacts that had already existed under previous British governments, of various political stripes. As was later confirmed, a “line of communication” between the British state and Irish republicans had existed as far back as the early 1970s. And even the apparently hard-line Margaret Thatcher had utilized this channel during the period of the IRA hunger strikes in 1980-81. 12
6. It is not always good to talk and there are often logical and sensible reasons not to do so. Unless it is part of a wider and clearly defined strategy, talking to terrorists can do more harm than good.
There are clear pitfalls to negotiation, as much as there are potential benefits. In some instances, the willingness of the state to negotiate might encourage the terrorists to believe that their opponents are ready to concede – even when this was not the case. It can also strengthen the perception that it is their violent campaign that has delivered results. In Northern Ireland, during a short truce in June-July 1972, for example, leading IRA operatives were flown to London in order to meet senior British politicians. This proved to be a disaster. At the talks the IRA representatives simply read a pre-prepared statement demanding that the British withdraw from Northern Ireland entirely. Any negotiation beyond the parameters of British withdrawal was rejected outright by an IRA which believed its violent campaign had forced the British to the negotiating table. Consequently, senior figures in the IRA concluded that the British were not yet in a position to negotiate, but they might be moving in that direction. The IRA believed that the tide of history was moving its way; a conviction that only fueled the notion that its strategy was yielding political results. Just two days after the talks, the IRA staged a confrontation with the army and ended their truce. Not long after this, on 21 July 1972, the organization exploded 22 bombs in Belfast in the space of 75 minutes – killing 9 and injuring another 130 on what became known as “Bloody Friday.” “For the future,” concluded the Northern Ireland Secretary of State involved in the talks, “I had learned a lesson which taught me the dangers and risks of dealing with terrorists.” 13 Furthermore, talking to terrorists also risked undermining more reliable partners for peace . In 1974-75, for instance, when Harold Wilson’s Labour government engaged in further secret talks with the IRA, this provoked an angry response from the Irish government, which remained suspicious of the British inclination to talk to terrorists throughout much of the period.
7. Bringing in the terrorists was not the absolute priority at the outset of the Northern Irish peace process and there were “preconditions” placed on IRA involvement within it. Much more importantly, it was state actors who decided the “bottom line” on which any future deal would be based, and this was done without the consent of the terrorists.
Article 9 of the Downing Street Declaration – a joint initiative announced by the British and Irish governments on 15 December 1993 – established that the conditions for peace negotiations were as follows: The British and Irish governments reiterate that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence. They confirm that, in these circumstances, democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the governments and the political parties on the way ahead. 14 While there was to be some ambiguity as to how this commitment to “exclusively peaceful methods” was to be demonstrated, it did establish some ground rules for conduct, resulting in an IRA ceasefire on 31 August 1994. Moreover, without injecting too much retrospective wisdom into the government’s policy, it is now possible to view the debate over preconditions as a sideshow to the real significance of the Downing Street Declaration. Much more important was the fact that the British and Irish governments had already agreed on what the basic outline of any future peace agreement would be before the process of bringing in other players even began. The Declaration set the terms of debate; and anyone wishing to participate in that debate would be effectively agreeing to operate within those parameters. Most significantly, the document was not a charter for negotiation with terrorists. Rather, the heart of the Declaration stated simply that in the absence of violence those parties that enjoyed a democratic mandate – including, but not exclusively, Sinn Fein – would be party to a talks’ process. In other words, in the absence of violence, republicans would not be ignored, but neither would they occupy the central role in any negotiation process. Furthermore, that negotiation process was itself defined by a key constitutional bottom-line, accepted by the Irish as well as the British government: that Northern Ireland would only be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom in the event that a majority of its population favored such a move. Thus, in joining this peace process, the IRA was effectively acceding to a reality against which they had fought for thirty years, but which both governments had now declared non-negotiable . The key to understanding the early stages of the peace process, therefore, is to recognize that it had a momentum, logic and blueprint of its own that were established largely independent of the terrorists .
8. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was triumph for moderation over extremism. It was based on the democratic principle of “sufficient consensus.”
Misleadingly, the Northern Ireland peace process is portrayed as having been a process of bi-lateral negotiation between terrorists and the British government. However, a vital aspect of the 1998 Agreement was the fact that it was ratified by a majority of people north and south of the Irish border. And the negotiations that led to the accord had rested on the bringing together of moderates from the province’s Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/nationalist communities. The logic of the agreement was that it would provide a sustainable and workable foundation for local political life, based on a system of democratic power-sharing, with a number of institutional devices for facilitating reconciliation across the sectarian divide.
Irish republicans were not the driving force behind the deal. In fact, they were the last of the negotiating partners to officially accept the provisions of the agreement. It was on David Trimble’s moderate Ulster Unionist party and John Hume’s moderate nationalist SDLP that the burden of negotiation had fallen. Sinn Fein had played little role in the construction of the actual agreement.15 As Trimble later reflected, “in April ‘98 the deal was [with] the SDLP, it wasn’t [with] Sinn Fein.”16 Republicans had been welcomed into the negotiations that preceded the accord because they met the British government’s preconditions for talks as contained within the Downing Street Declaration. And they were permitted to participate in the post-agreement institutions insofar as they signed up to and delivered on the fundamentals of the agreement. But they were not in control of these developments. The dynamic underpinning these events lay elsewhere. As in 1993, Sinn Fein and the IRA got on board because the initiatives produced by other parties led them to believe that, to paraphrase Tony Blair’s statement, the settlement train was leaving the station.
9. Many of the problems that emerged after the deal of 1998 occurred because the governments shifted their emphasis from the moderate consensus to the need to keep the terrorists on board. In so doing they lost sight of the essential basis of the peace process.
Despite the fact that an end to full-scale violence seemed to have been achieved in 1998, the shadow of the gunman continued to hang over Northern Ireland. The simple reality was that the moderate parties could not deliver guns because they did not have any; and in the absence of paramilitary decommissioning – particularly by republicans who also wished to sit in the new government of Northern Ireland – the weapons issue served to destabilize the political center ground.” Inch by inch negotiations over “guns and government” prevented the establishment of durable institutions in the province and eroded the support base for the moderate parties on both sides of the communal divide. Shortly after the turn of 2000, elements within the British, Irish and American governments grew frustrated by the fact that the center ground appeared increasingly vulnerable. Government policy gradually shifted towards a new dispensation: to hang the future success of power-sharing on ensuring that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were put center stage, at almost any price. A policy that had once sought to safeguard the moderates was now sacrificed for one of bringing in the extremes – a strategy that reached fulfillment with the return of the institutions in May 2007, under the aegis of the DUP’s Ian Paisley, on the one hand, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, on the other: the new co-premiers of the new Northern Ireland. Of course, it is hard to argue that the British approach to Northern Ireland over the last ten years has not been, broadly speaking, a success. It has ended the campaign of violence and established functioning, devolved institutions. But even now, the logic of placing everything on the importance of bringing Sinn Fein into that deal can be questioned. After 1998, there is no question that the tendency to put so much emphasis on a bilateral process of negotiation between the government and the IRA contributed to the hemorrhaging of electoral support from the center ground and empowered the extremes.
10. Ultimately, if talking to terrorists did achieve some success in the 1990s, it was only when it became clear that the rules of the game had changed.
The terms of the dialogue between the British government and the IRA were set by the war that preceded it. It has become increasingly clear that, by the early 1990s, the IRA had been heavily infiltrated by informers and was subject to a strategy of containment by the British security services.17 While retaining the capacity for the occasional spectacular attack, the IRA’s operational capacity was being steadily undermined. This view lends credibility to the suggestion that it was the IRA who came to the British in the 1990s with the intention of suing for peace, not the other way round. Of course, the extent to which the IRA was actually defeated will be debated for many years. It is difficult to measure the importance of the “secret war” against other variables. Either way, setting aside the moral and legal controversies that are often associated with this “dirty war,” it is clear that counter-terrorism operations were taking a heavy toll on the organization. This wane in military fortunes was matched by the stalling (and even partial reversal) of Sinn Fein’s political performance. It is an oft-neglected fact today that in 1994, when the IRA called its first ceasefire, republicans were without an elected member of parliament. Gerry Adams had lost his West Belfast seat in the 1992 general election to the SDLP. Moreover, the party’s performance overall had stalled to the point where Adams could be mockingly-labelled “Mr. Ten Percent” by a senior British politician – a reference to the marginal level of support Sinn Fein commanded.18 In the context of this deteriorating position, republicans opted for a political way out – one that had long been offered by the British state; it was precisely to give republicans an escape route from their violent campaign that Sinn Fein had been legalized as far back as 1974. As David Trimble has observed, “There was always push and pull with this business of republicans coming into politics. The push was the success of the security forces and the disenchantment of the core support the IRA had relied on. There was a pull factor, too, in the attraction of politics and the possibility of political success.” 19 It was this dual process that impacted on the IRA leadership and persuaded them that the organization’s violent campaign had to be brought to an end. Republicans came to realize that they had little alternative and in the context of a position that was declining in real terms, they opted to halt the IRA campaign.
The Misapplication of a Model: The Hamas Comparison The circumstances which framed the peace process in Northern Ireland were unique to that region. Attempts to draw a comparison between events there and the possible future development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict run up against a number of contingencies and variables, which show a stark divergence between the two situations.
1. Hamas is a very different organization to the IRA. Unlike the IRA and the British Government – which objected to the means rather than the ends of the IRA campaign – Hamas’ founding objectives are irreconcilable with the existence of the Israeli state.
The British government, it has been noted, repeatedly affirmed its lack of strategic interest in Northern Ireland. This it could do because the aims of the IRA posed no existential threat to the British state (though, it should be noted that they did pose an existential threat to the Northern Irish state) and, as a result, the British state had no fundamental objection to the IRA’s key objective – the reunification of Ireland. Its objection to the IRA was based on the means, not the ends, of militant Irish republicanism. This is not the case where Israel and Hamas are concerned. The objectives of Hamas require the destruction of the State of Israel. As the founding Charter of Hamas states, “Israel will arise and continue to exist until Islam abolishes it.”20 Unlike the IRA, which was always prepared to negotiate with the British government, the Hamas Charter rules out the prospect of any permanent accommodation with Israel: “The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is a religious Islamic endowment [waqf] for all Muslims until Resurrection Day. It is forbidden to relinquish it or any part of it or give it up or any part of it.” Furthermore, Hamas has declared itself antithetical to a peace process based on the kind of parameters and constitutional bottom-lines that would be acceptable to Israel. Its charter thus states: [Diplomatic] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences to find a solution to the Palestinian problem, contradict the Islamic Resistance Movement’s ideological position. Giving up any part whatsoever of [the land of] Palestine is like ignoring a part of [the Muslim] faith….There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except jihad.” In keeping with this attitude, Hamas waged war on the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and its campaign of suicide bombings against Israel helped to derail that process. Moreover, whereas the IRA’s aims were largely confined to the political conflict with the British state, Hamas’ goals range much wider. As its motto declares, the organization holds that, “Allah is its purpose, the messenger [the prophet Muhammad] is its exemplary figure and the Qur’an is its constitution, jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the most exalted wish.”23 This phrase is a direct echo of the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood and, indeed, Hamas’ Charter proclaims that, “The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] is the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.”24 Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, among the foremost analysts of radical Islamism, have described the Brotherhood as “the most powerful Islamist group in the Arab world, with chapters throughout Europe and North America.” The fact is that the ideology of Hamas places it in line with other radical Islamist movements around the world, including Al-Qaeda – notwithstanding the apparent hostility between those two groups.This hostility has not precluded Hamas from cooperating with local Al-Qaeda affiliates within Palestine. One such group, for instance, is Jaish al-Islam (JAI, the Army of Islam) – the group that gained notoriety in 2007 when it abducted BBC journalist Alan Johnston. The demand of JAI after the seizure of Johnston was that a number of radical Islamists being held in prison by Western countries be released – and they made specific reference to Abu Qatada, the man described elsewhere as “Osama bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe.” It is instructive that Hamas had previously cooperated with JAI in kidnapping Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit in 2006. Elsewhere, Hamas has explicitly identified itself with the other causes célèbres of global jihadism. Its propaganda material, for example, has tied the Palestinian issue to those of Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, described the U.S.’ 2003 invasion of Iraq as “a new crusade against the Muslim nation” and called on Muslims worldwide to “strike Western interests…everywhere.” And it is clear that the organization sees itself as belonging to the international Islamist firmament. It is perhaps for this reason that its website carries news in multiple languages (with eight featured at present) – and the group’s charter declares that, “Muslims who adopt the path of the Islamic Resistance Movement and act to support it, to adopt its positions and to strengthen its holy war, are spread over the face of the earth, making the movement universal.” On top of this, the ideology of Hamas is driven by a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism, entwined with an apocalyptic religious interpretation of its “struggle.” The Hamas Charter thus makes much of the renowned forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is held up as an authentic document that reveals the world Jewish conspiracy. The charter also quotes the Qur’an to the following effect: As the prophet [Muhammad], may the prayer of Allah and his blessing of peace be upon him, said: “The time will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them and until the Jew hides behind the rocks and trees, and [then] the rocks and trees will say: ‘Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew hiding [behind me], come and kill him.’” It is sometimes claimed that attention should not necessarily be paid to what Hamas says; by the same token, the organization’s charter is often said to be ‘out of date’ and due for revision. However, the reality is that that charter is still circulated by Hamas and deemed to be a relevant statement of its policy.Purported alterations of the charter have failed to materialize; rather, one of Hamas’ leaders in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Zahar, declared in the aftermath of the group’s 2006 political victory that not a single word of the document would be changed. Hamas remains uncompromising in its goals. And the particularly aggressive character of its ideology possibly makes the emergence of more pragmatic strains (in a way that did occur among Irish republican leaders in Northern Ireland) much harder to envisage. The leadership of Hamas has repeatedly emphasized that there has been no dilution in the commitment of the group to its guiding principles: “jihad and resistance.” Or, as Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, put it in October 2006, the group remains committed to the principle that it will “never recognize this dictatorial entity [Israel]” and believes that “resistance is the only way to liberate Palestine.”
2. Unlike Northern Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which a number of regional powers have an important stake. Moreover, also unlike Northern Ireland, it would appear that some of the main players in the conflict have no interest in peace and stability.
In Northern Ireland it was clear that the Republic of Ireland eventually came to play a key role in the search for peace. After an initial period in which the Irish government showed itself to be somewhat ambivalent on the IRA (with which it shared an ideological heritage), it decisively set itself against republican violence. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland had become a force for stability and peace in Northern Ireland and worked in close cooperation with the British government in the search for a settlement. Generally speaking, in the case of both governments, selfish political objectives were not pursued in the Northern Ireland conflict. It is emphatically the case that the same cannot be said of the neighbors of Israel today. On the contrary, Iran and Syria continue to support Hamas and encourage its violent campaign – both themselves and through their proxies. This is done through the provision of money, arms and training. In March 2008, for example, a Hamas commander informed Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin that hundreds of fighters were being sent to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for training. In similar fashion, men were said to be sent to Syria as well.Elsewhere, it is no secret that the capital of Syria, Damascus, is home to many within the Hamas leadership, including figures such as Khaled Meshaal. Though the Syrian authorities maintain that they are only allowed to engage in political activities, the fact is that Hamas is (in this respect, like the IRA) a unitary movement. There is thus no separation between the political, social, religious and charitable arms of Hamas – they are all part of a unified entity.
3. The key variable in Northern Ireland was not the act of talking to terrorists, so much as the timing of this process. The Hamas of 2008 is a very different force from the IRA of the early 1990s, which sought entry into the political process because it felt that its existing strategy was not working.
The British government was prepared to open lines of communication between itself and the IRA throughout much of “The Troubles.” But formal negotiations could only occur in a context in which republican violence had been brought to an end. This was what took place in the 1990s, when the peace process proceeded under the terms of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Crucial here, again, was the wider context – with the IRA in a position of declining military and political fortunes. This situation was one from which it sought to extricate itself via the peace process. The same scenario does not pertain to Hamas, which has been on an upward trajectory in recent years. From this position, the organization is liable to view talks as a sign of weakness rather than an opening towards a compromise agreement – a position similar to the IRA’s interpretation of its meeting with the British government in 1972. This, after all, is how Hamas viewed the most dramatic Israeli concession of recent years: the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, initiated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Ismail Haniyeh, the man who later became Hamas’ Prime Minister within the Palestinian Authority, thus stated in the aftermath of disengagement: “We must defend the resistance and the weapons of the resistance, because that is what liberated the land and will continue to liberate the land and defend the Palestinian people….Sharon cannot evade the truth: The Kassam [rocket] is what forced the enemy out. This is a victory for the resistance and for all of the Palestinian people.” Furthermore, for Hamas this apparent military triumph was followed in short order by political gain. On 25 January 2006, Hamas secured a dramatic victory in elections that were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC – the parliamentary body within the Palestinian Authority). Though it did not secure a majority of votes – winning some 44.5 percent of the total vote (as compared with Fatah’s 41.4 percent) – Hamas decisively defeated its secular rival. It took 74 seats in the 132-seat PLC, whereas Fatah won only 45.Prior to the poll, few had predicted such an outcome (and there are some suggestions that Hamas itself actively sought to downplay expectations), but there was no denying the political earthquake that had occurred. Again, Hamas attributed these achievements to its successful armed resistance against Israel. The contrast with the position of the IRA in the late 1980s and early 1990s could not be clearer. There, the perception of the republican leadership was – rightly – that IRA violence had held back the political prospects of Sinn Fein. By contrast, Hamas believes itself to have achieved political success in 2006 as a direct consequence of its uncompromising militancy. Far from being a liability (as had been the case for the IRA), the hard-line military stance of Hamas was perceived to have been a definite political asset. The IRA was never able to dominate its ‘internal enemies’ within Irish nationalism, such as the SDLP or the Irish government. It never gained the upper hand against these challengers to its claim to embody the Irish people. By contrast, Hamas appears to have gained much greater traction in its effort to establish itself as the representative of the Palestinian people. Though the PLO retains an emotional hold, given its internationally-recognized status as the “sole representative” of the Palestinians, Hamas has made significant inroads into that standing. The January 2006 election results stand as the clearest indication of this. Increasingly, Hamas has been able to set the agenda within the Palestinian political sphere, in a way that the IRA was never able to do in the Irish nationalist political sphere. This political dominance has also been translated into military superiority over its rivals, manifested by the coup staged by the organization inside the Gaza Strip in 2007, which violated unity agreements that the two movements had reached in 2006 and 2007. It also appeared to reveal a Fatah movement that had lost its sense of mission and self-belief, as it ceded the terrain (literally and intellectually) to Hamas.
Thus, whereas the IRA’s entry into talks with the British government occurred against a backdrop of a declining republican position in real terms, Hamas is an organization which, in its own view, is riding the crest of a wave. It has extensive financial support and the patronage of a number of surrounding regimes, providing it with ideological and logistical succor. It has overtaken its enemies and believes further victories to be a realistic possibility.
4. The peace agreement in Northern Ireland was constructed on a democratic foundation and enjoyed substantial popular support. Ultimately, the IRA had little choice but to acquiesce in the outcome. By contrast, Hamas has shown no sign of being prepared to accept a settlement that could enjoy similarly broad support across the two sides involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was something of a cliché during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” to note that everyone knew what the solution to the conflict looked like. Indeed, the framework that underpinned the eventual Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was prefigured as far back as the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973-74. As one commentator famously observed, the 1998 accord was, in many ways, Sunningdale “for slow learners.” Yet, what made the Belfast Agreement of 1998 unique, in comparison to all the other attempts to find a settlement to the problems of Northern Ireland, was that it was followed by twin referendums, north and south of the Irish border, in which a large majority voted in favor of the proposed settlement. While the extent of Sinn Fein’s commitment to democracy was always ambiguous, the expression of a democratic majority in favor of the Belfast Agreement – particularly strong in the nationalist community – made it almost impossible for the IRA to try to overturn that arrangement. In the Middle East, just as in Northern Ireland, the parameters for a settlement to the conflict are broadly accepted. Indeed, they have an even longer pedigree than the solution to Northern Ireland’s upheavals – dating, as they do, as far back as 1948. The UN’s plan for the partition of the territory in that year looked to a two-state solution with a border drawn along the “green line” between Israel and Palestine. Little has changed. Moreover, shortly after Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza reported that the majority of the population there continued to support a two-state solution, thereby opposing Hamas’ stance on the destruction of Israel. The survey found that 84 percent of those questioned wanted a peace agreement with Israel. 73 percent of respondents believed that Hamas should “change its position on the elimination of the State of Israel.”It was partly in response to this that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas put forward proposals for a referendum on a two-state solution in June 2006. Abbas’ aim was to force Hamas’ hand by demonstrating the Palestinian people’s unequivocal support for such an outcome. Hamas, though, rejected the proposals. In this way, Hamas appeared to confirm the fact that it is simply not prepared to countenance a settlement that can gain democratic legitimacy among all the parties to the conflict. Since its victory in Gaza, its pre-eminence has been further strengthened by a campaign of violence and intimidation. So long as it exerts its stranglehold on its own community – and refuses to consider the recognition of Israel – there is a danger that negotiating with the organization will strengthen its position against more moderate alternatives, as well as bolstering its belief that it can achieve its ultimate objectives.
Conclusion Of all the misconceptions that have appeared in regard to the Northern Ireland conflict, one stands out above all others. The notion of talking to one’s enemies – no matter how intransigent or unreasonable they may seem – has been fetish-ized by many from across the political spectrum. The argument is often made, however, in a way that sees talking as a self-contained and ameliorative activity on its own terms – removed from the many other, rather less palatable, ingredients that make up a violent conflict. What really matters is not the act of talking to terrorists itself, but a whole range of other variables relating to the context in which that act occurs: When does it take place? What are the motives behind it, on both sides? Does it fit into a wider strategy? When does the act of establishing lines of communication become an officially sanctioned process of negotiation? Most importantly, there is a crucial qualitative difference between talking to terrorists who are on the crest of a wave – in terms of propaganda, confidence and momentum – and talking to terrorists who have been made to realize that their aims are unattainable by violent means. More broadly, it is clear that the whole notion that there exists a model of conflict resolution that can successfully be applied elsewhere in the world is a highly questionable one
Read the entire article here Talking to Terrorists: The Myths, Misconceptions and Misapplication of the Northern Ireland Peace Process