Northern Ireland's path to peace offers lessons to Palestine and Israel

It is by no means a done deal, but difficult conversations are helping to pave the way forward

A mural in solidarity with Palestinians painted on the International Wall in Falls Road, in the nationalist area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Reuters
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Belfast’s Europa Hotel has its place in history – some good, some bad. It was built in 1971 near the city centre on Great Victoria Street, two or three years after the start of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” during which more than 3,000 people were killed.

When I lived in Northern Ireland, there were so many bombings of businesses along Great Victoria Street that I thought of the area as being like a mouth in which most of the teeth had been removed. There were demolished buildings turned into car parks and the stumps of bomb sites with few remaining shops, offices and restaurants.

By 1995, then US president Bill Clinton and his family stayed in the Europa as part of his peace efforts. Their entourage booked 110 rooms.

The hard work of Mr Clinton, several Irish prime ministers and British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair eventually paid off. Great Victoria Street now is a thriving shopping and dining area.

I’m back in the Europa Hotel to speak at an event for 500 people as part of an event called Ireland’s Future. You can’t plan a future without remembering the past, but the trick is not to be stuck there.

The idea behind the Belfast discussions is that while Northern Ireland nowadays is at peace, it is fragile. Hatreds can be intractable. (It’s a lesson elsewhere too, as we know.) And peace here has been upset by Brexit. Many see politicians in Westminster ignoring the fact that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, clearly voted to stay in the EU.

In Belfast, I was struck by how the violence in Gaza and Israel repeatedly came up in our conversations as a dangerous road to be avoided at all costs

Although technically part of the UK, the main British political parties – Conservatives and Labour – govern Northern Ireland but don’t have MPs here. Those British parties, with notable exceptions, are often accused of indifference except when there is trouble, bombings and shootings.

There is also a boycott of the Stormont parliament by the largest unionist group the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). It’s committed to staying within the UK, but the DUP unwisely supported Brexit, and Brexit made their own voters feel less secure because the British government placed a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Ireland’s Future discussions hope to bring together those from any political party (and none) who want to solve problems by discussing whether the reunification of Ireland is possible, desirable, possibly even inevitable.

Unionists, who tend to be Protestants, were historically the majority in Northern Ireland. They rejected a united Ireland partly because Catholics form the majority on the whole island of Ireland. But now, many younger voters are less interested in historic religious differences.

They just want a better life. Change is happening. Even some traditional British unionists have taken Irish passports because that makes travel in the EU much easier.

The challenges of bringing people together and ending ancient political, national and religious differences are immense (yet again, as we know from Palestine and Israel.)

Irish nationalists talk of British violence ranging back at least to Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century and the Anglo-Irish War of the 20th century. Unionists celebrate every year the victory of King William of Orange’s protestant army in 1690 or speak of the killings of protestants in 1641 and terrorism by the IRA in the Troubles from the 1960s onwards.

But Ireland’s Future discussions have attracted interest from a number of political parties, although unfortunately not the DUP.

One of their famous party slogans was that “Ulster Says NO!” to Irish unity. Demographic changes suggest growing numbers are now thinking “Ulster says MAYBE”, or at least hope for a better relationship with the Irish Republic, an enduring peace, stability and economic opportunity.

I talked with many people in the audience, including Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, the main opposition party in the Irish parliament – a party with its roots in the paramilitary IRA.

Ms McDonald is tipped to be a future Taoiseach, the Irish name for prime minister. This itself is an astounding change. Sinn Fein – once a fringe republican group – is now polling well north and south of the Irish border.

It is impossible to predict Ireland’s real future, beyond the fact that many want a change from old conflicts and the brain-dead politics of the past. Unionists and Nationalists both want peace and prosperity for their children and grandchildren.

And once more in Belfast, I was struck by how the horrific violence in Gaza and Israel repeatedly came up in our conversations as a dangerous road to be avoided at all costs. Gaza, as an Irish supporter of Palestine described it to me, has been an “open prison” for years.

Fear, suspicion and hatred are never a good basis for peace anywhere. Yet as another of the Belfast participants reminded me, the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin insisted that you don’t need to make peace with your friends. You need to make peace with your enemies.

Mr Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist before he could achieve that peace he so desired.

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Published: November 08, 2023, 4:00 AM