Trimble to 'Post': Keep door open to Palestinians

Northern Ireland peacemaker talks conflict resolution, but won't apply one crisis's lessons to another.

trimble 88.298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
trimble 88.298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Between 1969 and 2001, 3,523 people, mostly non-combatants, were killed as a result of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland between elements of the Unionist community (primarily Protestant), and Nationalist community (chiefly Roman Catholic). The conflict was caused by the disputed status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and the alleged domination of the minority Nationalist community by the Unionist majority. The violence was characterized by the armed campaigns of paramilitary groups, primarily the Irish Republican Army (the IRA). Unionist paramilitary forces, as well as the British Army and the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) - were also involved. David Trimble, a Northern Irish politician who served as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the first First Minister of Northern Ireland, and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the historic deal that ended the Troubles with a power-sharing deal called the Good Friday Agreement. But if you're looking for Trimble to tell you how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be solved, you may as well stop reading here. People ask him to do it all the time, all over this troubled world, but Trimble says it's impossible: one cannot extrapolate a situation onto another and say that what worked somewhere else will work here, too - what he calls his "usual caveat". "The last thing I want to do is descend somewhere and tell people what to do," he says. "I'm very happy to speak to people about my experiences, but not to tell them what to do." Trimble, 62, was invited by King Abdullah and Elie Wiesel to impart some of his experience in conflict resolution to other Nobel laureates in a conference of Nobel Prize winners in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, Jordan. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the conference, Trimble relates how Northern Ireland almost disappeared from the world's headlines, no longer being identified one of the world's most intractable trouble spots. He believes the same can be done here, as long as the Israelis remember to "always keep the door open" to a Palestinian negotiating partner, should one come along with whom the Israelis believe they can deal. He also has some knowledge to impart to the Palestinians, saying that once the two sides in the Northern Ireland conflict resolved their constitutional issue, an internal settlement was solidified. Initially Trimble is careful not to say what he thinks Israelis or Palestinians should do to get out of their conflict, instead choosing examples from the Northern Ireland experience to send subtle messages to the local combatants. How did Northern Ireland get from a situation of violence to dialogue, how did you break the cycle? We've had a fair amount of success in Northern Ireland, and we have an agreement which resolved the constitutional problems, which assisted in turning Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Irish Republic and the rest of the United Kingdom. Constitutional issues have been solved and that solution has endured. We also had an agreement on internal administration in Northern Ireland. We then had difficulties operating that, and it collapsed a couple of years ago and we've had a political stalemate in terms of restoring that. But, while there's been a stalemate, nobody now challenges the basic principles of that internal settlement. What is absent is sufficient confidence in the intentions of other parties - and that's a failure of Sinn Fein [the political wing of the Irish Republican Army] to create confidence amongst those people with whom they have to operate, and those people don't have a view that Sinn Fein are genuine and so there is a reluctance to work with them. But this is a problem that is going to be resolved; what I can't do is tell you exactly when it is going to be resolved. I have a suspicion that we have to see changes in the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party in order to resolve it. But those changes will take place, and the other important thing to say is that the social and economic situation in Northern Ireland remains absolutely sound and indeed continues to prosper, things continue to improve. So while there is the problem which relates to the politics of the situation, the underlying problems have been resolved and the overall prognosis I think is still good. What can the Israelis and Palestinians use as a bridge between violence and peace talks? There are a number of reasons for the changes in the overall context [in Northern Ireland]. Before the violence ended, the ideological conflict had been resolved - by that I mean we resolved the factors underlying the ideological conflict. It was generally by the late 1980s-early '90s that it was genuinely accepted in Northern Ireland that having an old-fashioned nationalist war over which state this piece of territory belonged to - something not unusual in Europe up until the middle of the twentieth century - that at the end of the twentieth century this was no longer appropriate. It was also clear that the various socioeconomic factors which had created disadvantages in some sectors of the community were no longer the case. The other major factor was that the security forces were actually being effective. And they were making the activities of the paramilitary organizations almost impossible. That was bringing it home to the paramilitary leadership that their campaign was going to fail. But I have to point out that at no point did the security forces attempt to remove the paramilitary leadership. They didn't attempt to remove the leadership? I ask, trying to count the number of military-wing commanders in pretty much every Palestinian town Israel has "removed" time and again. No, they didn't. The reason why they didn't try [to] remove the leadership was because the security forces saw it as their objective to paralyze the organization. So the important thing was to identify who the leaders were and then make sure they were ineffective. Removing a leader is a short-term thing. He is replaced. And then you have to find out who the replacement is. Removing the leadership is a short-term gain, whereas making it impossible for the leadership to operate produced a result that some leaders stepped down voluntarily as they realized they were being cramped and after making all sorts of excuses as to why their operations were failing. The security forces in Northern Ireland never said this publicly but I think it was a deliberate tactic on their part. And it worked out for us, and I'm only saying for us [usual caveat -A.M.]. Despite all these things - the ideological agreement, the socioeconomic element, and the security aspect - it still took a long time to get to the right juncture of circumstances. You didn't have just two sides, you didn't just have Unionists and Nationalists; both camps were internally divided. And because of the divisions within themselves they tended to cancel each other out, and the important thing is that we did, by the late 1990s, arrive at a situation where you had a Unionist leadership that was ready to negotiate, and a Nationalist leadership that was ready to negotiate in the context of favorable circumstances. Where do you see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going following Hamas's election victory? I can see parallel situations there because I acknowledge the tremendous change that Ariel Sharon made and his recognition that, in the long run, trying to retain the occupation of all of the territory west of the Jordan was self-defeating from a purely Israeli point of view. I think that was a historic change and it obviously created a possibility for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It was only post-Sharon's change of view that the possibility existed, but unfortunately it doesn't match up with the changes and events in the Palestinian community. Was there ever a chance of successful negotiations with Arafat? I don't know. Certainly at Camp David Arafat had a huge opportunity which he failed to take. Whether this was because at some point he realized that he couldn't do it or because he thought he could come back for a second attempt and get something better, its academic as to which that was: the opportunity wasn't taken. Unfortunately the dissatisfaction amongst Palestinians with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority led to a situation where the voted for Hamas. How can there be talks if Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist? Hamas seems to be starting on a trajectory that might take them towards politics and might take them towards a different view of things, but that's not where they are at the moment. The difficulty is getting both sides at the same place at the right time. How would you advise both sides to proceed here? I wouldn't. I wouldn't dare to. [chuckles] I don't have advice to give. I'm just an external observer. But you have had experience in taking on a major problem and moving it forward to a resolution, of sorts. I can just reflect on the complexities that exist within Israelis, within Palestinians. Its not actually until you get people who are willing to actually commit to a solution, both sides together, to put pen on paper… events might lead in that direction, they might not. How important was the issue of weapons decommissioning in the Northern Ireland process? The crucial thing actually is to have people determined not to use weapons, and wanting to get rid of them. And the focus that there was on decommissioning in the Northern Ireland context only was there because the Republican leadership constantly refused to give any guarantees to people about their future intentions to have a cease-fire. They wouldn't say whether it would be permanent or not. They said the guns were silent but they didn't say 'we're not going to resort to violence in the future.' If they had said right from the outset 'we're giving up, we're stopping the campaign, we realize that its wrong, we want to get involved in negotiations, we see the future through political means and we don't intend to return to violence,' the issue would have been resolved differently. It only played out the way it did because the Republicans refused to give guarantees. What will come of [the Israeli-Palestinian] situation I don't know; we had to focus on the guns, but you don't want to have to focus on one thing, what you've got to do is take a view of the situation as a whole. The view that we were taking of our situation as a whole led us to the conclusion that we had to find some way of making the Republicans show that they are giving up arms, and the only way we could [do] that was to focus on the guns. Does Olmert's unilateral West Bank withdrawal plan have any chance of creating the right context for peace? I can understand why the Israelis are moving in that direction, when they don't see any sign, in the present situation, of willingness on the part of what appears to be the Palestinian leadership to move their way. But I think you need to be very clear about what the intention is. There will be those people, and there are already those people, who say that it's a Machiavellian move on the part of the Israelis, that what they intend is for the wall to be the permanent border which will result in a significant extension [of Israeli territory] and a reduction of Palestinian areas to such a point that it is possibly no longer viable. And there will be far too many Palestinians ready to believe that. So I think it's important in that situation to make it clear to the Palestinians what the intention is, why it is being done and how you would much prefer to be doing something else, such as a negotiated agreement. And that's what you would really want and you're only doing this out of short-term frustration. In other words, to keep the door open. One of the great difficulties about a situation like this is one side having opinions about the other side that may not be entirely right, or mutual misunderstanding. In the long run you want to have within the Palestinian people a leadership that you can work with. So you've got to be looking for a viable interlocutor, you've got to be encouraging people to believe that you want a viable interlocutor and that you want to create good relationships. How long can Israel keep the door open to the Palestinians? I'm just saying that in the long run your objective must be a positive relationship with the Palestinian people. That long? How long is 'that long'? I don't know. Are you ever going to say that you are more secure without a positive relationship with the Palestinians? And even if the Palestinian people should somehow magically disappear there are still all the other Arab peoples beyond them. You will want to have a positive relationship with your neighbors, and that's the best goal. You can't have a positive relationship with people who are firing missiles and planting bombs, so you have to take measures to defend yourself. But you have got to do it in a context of at the same time giving reassurance that your short-term security measures are only short-term, and that they're not really where you want to be long-term. But isn't Israel giving that message when it talks about the security fence: the fence can be brought down, but lives can't be brought back? As I said, I understand the need for short-term measures of a security nature. And there doesn't... in the here and now appear to be an alternative. I'm just saying that in the long run you must want something better. We came to realize that, for many Unionists at the time, in the early days of the Troubles, that it was simply a law-and-order issue. The truism is that you have to have a political policy as well. You have to have a political outlook for the future. Security measures here and now are perfectly understandable, and I understand them, although other people may misunderstand them. But you have to combat that misunderstanding. You've got to be saying to people at the same time: this is what we want long-term. You need to set out a long-term political vision for the region. And I think that's hugely important. What is your long-term vision for the region? Is spreading democracy the right answer for the Middle East? Within the region as a whole there are some problems that need to be resolved. That's part of the reason why I'm here [at the Petra II conference of Nobel Laureates]. Democracy is the right answer to humanity. Are you still involved in the political process in Northern Ireland? I am still involved in politics, but in a more limited way. The opportunity for me to make a contribution is largely in the past. I haven't left the issue, I'm still there.