Ulster's lesson for the Middle East: don't indulge extremists

The Guardian 25 October 2007

Advocating the Northern Irish 'model' has become a popular past-time. In conflicts as different as Spain, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, the key players are now urged to consider the undoubted success in Northern Ireland and follow our example. This is hardly surprising: but I am concerned at how that example is described.

A few months ago former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Hain, described it as “the development of dialogue at every level”, a dialogue “delivering the most obdurate constituencies” focussing on “key leaders”, but warned that “preconditions can strangle the process at birth”. Many others have urged unconditional dialogue with the most intransigent - “dancing with wolves” it has been called and Northern Ireland cited as justification.

These accounts disturb me. They are not accurate. Worse, they are potentially dangerous. Such initiatives in the wrong circumstances can backfire. That happened in Northern Ireland. In 1972 a high-ranking IRA delegation (including both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) was flown (in secret) to London for talks with the Northern Ireland Secretary.

The talks failed. The bar had been set too low - only a few days into a flimsy and temporary ceasefire. The IRA saw it as a sign of British weakness, stepped up their campaign and for some years thereafter believed that one ‘last push’ would do the trick. Loyalists saw it as a waning British commitment to maintaining Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and increased their violence. Actions, intended to bring peace, merely deepened constitutional uncertainty and generated new levels of violence.

Thankfully government learnt the lessons. We now know that indirect contacts with republicans appear to have been underway from 1986-87. Crucially it was soon made clear that there were conditions before they could be an official engagement. The key conditions were later formalised in the Downing Street declaration of 1993 as an end to violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Equally important was the government’s commitment to the consent principle and its refusal to act as a persuader for a united Ireland, which prefigured the outcome of the formal inter-party talks, the three stranded structure of which were defined in March 1991 and the key procedural decisions taken by the parties in 1992 in the absence of Sinn Fein. When they called their cessation of their campaign in 1994 republicans were, de facto, accepting these parameters for talks.

Nowhere is the Northern Ireland analogy applied more vigorously than in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above all, there has been much said about the need to 'engage' with those who we regard terrorists. If negotiations with the IRA led to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, we are often told, Israel must be prepared to take the same approach with Hamas.

And as we get closer to a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis - itself clouded with uncertainly but still the most significant meeting for more than seven years - those voices urging negotiation at almost any price are getting louder and louder. Commentators point animatedly to the elephant in the corner - Hamas who will almost certainly not be attending the talks. Nothing can be achieved, they argue, if the most extremist elements are not at the negotiating table.

We must hope for agreement at Annapolis. But agreement will mean an accommodation, not a victory of one side over another. Still less will it mean the annihilation of the “other”. Where does Hamas stand on these matters? Will it accept a two state solution? Will it end violence? These are reasonable questions to ask. Failure to reply satisfactorily shows that it would be wrong to try to include them.

The preconditions for engagement are as clear for Hamas as they were for the IRA in the early 1990s. Hamas must be encouraged to take the same steps the IRA took towards the negotiating table. But this will be undermined if they feel they do it on their terms and continue to reject a compromise solution. We must make sure that events like the Annapolis conference are successful and provide Hamas with further impetus to engage in a process with all Palestinians and Israelis of negotiation and compromise.

If there is one lesson to learn from the Northern Ireland experience it is that preconditions are crucial in ending violence and producing a settlement. Over generous flexibility is like giving sweets to a spoilt child in the hope that it will improve his behaviour - it usually results in worse actions. Our experience suggests that while some flexibility is desirable, there have to be clear principles and boundaries; a failure to recognise this runs the risk of learning the wrong lessons from the recent history of the province and fundamentally misunderstanding Ulster.

(25 October 2007)

'Note: This article was republished the following week in the Jerusalem Post and in Ha'aretz. The Guardian publsihed an article attacking Ulster's lesson for the Middle East on 5 November, and on 7 November the following reply was submitted to the paper, but not published.'

Letters Editor,
The Guardian,
7 November2007

Dear Sir,

Dr Azzam Tamimi in his article This is no basis for talks (Guardian, 5 November) attributes Hamas’ support to its refusal to give up the “hope that one day the Zionist Colonisation of Palestine will be no more”. Zionism exists to create a democratic state for the Jewish people. Israel is that state. It is, for all its citizens a more democratic, fairer and more prosperous state than any of its neighbours. Ending that state would mean another holocaust by the Mediterranean. If this is not the object, then Hamas should say so clearly and unequivocally.

Dr Tamami draws a parallel with Irish republicans’ inclusion in talks notwithstanding their objective to absorb Northern Ireland within an Irish republic. But there is no parallel. Irish republicans, even before entry to the talks, were required to accept certain principles which meant that there would be no united Ireland without the freely given consent of the people of Northern Ireland. This we all knew would not be given, although we did not rub salt into their wounds at the time.

The article also hints, with what authority we know not, that there could be talks about coexistence. But, with broad international support, talks are now taking place on a “two state solution”. That is a Jewish state for the Jewish people alongside a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. As I said in my article it is perfectly reasonable to ask participants to accept the principle of a two state solution, which is also the concept at the core of the quartet’s requirements.

Finally, in my article I discussed the Northern Ireland experience. A fuller statement of this can be seen in Misunderstanding Ulster which can be seen at davidtrimble.org and cfoi.co.uk. I note that Dr. Tamami was unable to refute any part of my account or state any facts in support of his criticisms of my article.

Yours etc,

David Trimble
House of Lords

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