The Belfast Good Friday Agreement – a model for Palestine?

Apr 22, 2024
Palestinian flag flies in front of Belfast City Hall

The continuing horror in Gaza touches us all deeply, even if only vicariously. It leads us ineluctably to the question, often asked in exasperation: Is there no solution? But we’ve been here before and some point to the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA), which ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as a possible model for the problem of Palestine. How plausible is that approach?

All analogies are flawed. Situations are never the same and holes abound in solutions that seek to apply lessons from the past to problems of the present. Yet, to misquote George Santayana, if we ignore the past we are condemned to repeat it. While history might not provide the answer, it may provide insights that help us find it.

The problems of Palestine and Northern Ireland share a common origin in the decline of the British empire after the First World War. In the early 1920s the British imposed half-baked solutions on both to solve problems the British had previously created with the Balfour Declaration and the rejection of Irish home rule.

Furthermore, Palestinians and the Irish in Northern Ireland profess similar nationalist narratives. Each claims to be indigenous to the area while categorising their opponents as interlopers who have stolen their land. In the case of Palestine, the narrative runs that today’s Israelis are mostly the descendants of Jews who fled Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to escape persecution by their European neighbours. In the Irish case, members of today’s unionist community are seen as the descendants of the English and Scottish loyalists who during the plantation of Ulster were sent to Ireland to crush the native Irish and their aspiration for liberation from England.

As with all nationalist narratives, there is a tendency to airbrush inconvenient facts, such as the fact that Jews have had a continuing presence in Palestine for thousands of years and that many Israelis are not European but descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who sought refuge in Israel in 1947-48 after being forced out of nearby Arab countries where they had been living for centuries. In Ireland’s case the plantation of Ulster occurred more than 400 years ago. So, today’s unionists are hardly blow-ins with no legitimate stake in the land.

Looked at from the other side, the Israeli and Northern Ireland unionist narratives are equally as adamant as to the justice of their occupation of the land. Some Israelis claim that God promised it to the Jews in perpetuity, others that the land was purchased on the open market or that the Palestinian Arabs abandoned it. Some unionists consider the ‘British Isles’ to be a geographical unit and assert that Ulster Scots had settled in Ireland before the plantation.

Their narratives also dismiss the claims of their opponents. Palestinian nationalism is disdained as a post-war political construct and claims of indigeneity are met with arguments of archaeological one-upmanship as if indigeneity is an exclusive category. British unionists traditionally denied the existence of Irish nationalism, characterising it as a protest against bad government. Thus, to some the Troubles were little more than a criminal enterprise led by individuals who had co-opted the civil rights movement that had been formed to protest against anti-Catholic discrimination.

With such entrenched, antagonistic positions, it is little wonder that the word ‘intractable’ springs to mind when considering these situations. But, as we know, the Troubles in Northern Ireland did come to an end after the signing of the BGFA. And, despite its many shortcomings, the BGFA did stop the killing and it provided to Irish nationalists a pathway to Irish national reunification that is both achievable and democratic, thus delegitimising the resumption of armed struggle.

So, how did the BGFA come about and can a similar solution be found in the case of Palestine?

Firstly, exhaustion was a significant factor. After 30 years of armed struggle, the IRA had not forced the British out of Northern Ireland but nor had the British government defeated the IRA. A similar situation applies in Palestine. What has a century of armed struggle achieved for the Palestinian people apart from death and misery? And, after more than 75 years from its foundation, is Israel any closer to defeating the Palestinian resistance?

A second factor was the emergence of leaders who were prepared to buck the prevailing business-as-usual approach and to forge a new way forward. The secret of their success was that they had the street cred to do so. Highly engaged republicans such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were able to convince a sufficient number on the IRA Army Council to support a change of strategy. The same had happened in 1921-22 when Michael Collins pushed through support for the Anglo-Irish treaty. Nelson Mandela in South Africa provides another example.

Do the Palestinians have an equivalent leader? In the 1990s it seemed as if Yasser Arafat might fulfil that role. However, despite coming close, he could never deliver the final package by carrying the movement with him. In contrast, Adams/McGuinness were successful in staring down their opposition, who eventually split off into irrelevance as Continuity IRA and the Real IRA.

Some point to 64-year-old Marwan Barghouti, who is currently imprisoned in Israel for his part in attacks carried out on Israeli civilians and soldiers. For fifty years he has been engaged in the resistance, rising to prominence during the first and second intifadas and being a founder of the al-Aqsa brigades. Opinion polls among Palestinians show him to be the single most popular Palestinian leader alive, well ahead of the current crop of Hamas and Fatah politicians.

Another potential leader is 62-year-old Mohammed Dahlan, former head of Fatah in Gaza who has been living in exile in the UAE for the past decade, where he has built up an influential network across the Arab world. He rose to prominence during the first intifada, spent years in Israeli prisons, and was involved in negotiating the Oslo Accords in 1993.

There may be others. But, whichever Palestinian might take the lead in forging a new path, they will need a partner on the Israeli side who is equally able to adopt and sustain a different approach against entrenched opposition. And just as the new Palestinian leader will need to have both courage and street cred, so too will their Israeli counterpart. It is possible. We saw it before with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk. Rabin, of course, paid the ultimate price for his attempt to find a solution.

The third factor in achieving the BGFA was the intervention of an honest broker who brought the two sides together. It began with John Hume and then moved on to Bill Clinton and the US. Whether the Americans are too involved to fulfil that role in Palestine is debatable. But there are other candidates. Qatar has recently acted as a go-between in hostage negotiations but many see it as too compromised and lacking the necessary confidence of the major Arab powers. Saudi Arabia is another possibility. It is keen to put an end to the troubles in Palestine, which it regards as contributing to the growth of Iranian power in the region.

Having said all that, many differences exist between Palestine and Northern Ireland. The most significant is the influence of religious nationalism. Whereas political nationalists can be persuaded to compromise, religious nationalists, with God on their side, are less amenable. Although the antagonists in Northern Ireland were often designated as Catholics and Protestants, the Troubles were never about religion. Religious identification was only ever a marker of the separate historical development of the two communities. The main issue was a political one – in whom should sovereignty over Northern Ireland reside, the people of the United Kingdom or the people of Ireland.

While many Palestinians, particularly in Fatah, are political nationalists, many others are religious nationalists or Islamists. They regard the whole of Palestine ‘from the river to the sea’ as sacred Muslim land until the day of judgment and no one has the right to compromise or cede any part of it. The Hamas covenant, in both its original and revised forms, makes this clear. On the Israeli side, religious nationalism has never been the dominant ideology, despite the claims of some Zionists to a biblical mandate. However, Israel’s insistence that it must exist as a Jewish state is a close analogy from which there can be no compromise. Even to practical Zionists, Israel must remain a safe haven for the world’s Jewry so that they will never again be victims of the sort of persecution they endured for centuries when living in other people’s lands.

Most outsiders cling to the idea of a two-state solution, despite opinion polls indicating that majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis reject it. But what is the alternative? Given the antagonists’ respective nationalist ideologies, a unitary-state solution amounts to a zero-sum game in which neither side is likely to want to engage. So, the pathway forward is difficult to see.

But so too was it in Northern Ireland until John Hume intervened. While the BGFA might not provide a model for solving the problem of Palestine, it does provide hope and also some insights that might help to find the elusive pathway forward.

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