Essay: Resist the Irish model

Toleration of terrorist activity in the interests of an agreement is unthinkable in the case of Hamas.

mitchell abbas 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
mitchell abbas 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Given his pivotal and much-lauded role in securing the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the appointment of George Mitchell as US Middle East special envoy has led to much speculation about how far he will seek to apply the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chief among these lessons, the received wisdom goes, is that terrorist organizations can be enticed away from violence through their incremental integration into the regional political system. Mitchell himself maintains that "what happened in Northern Ireland cannot be precisely replicated [in Israel]," and he confines himself to generalities when the question of parallels is raised. However, other players in the Northern Ireland peace process have strongly advocated adopting an "Irish" approach to the Islamists. For example, Richard Haass, former Middle East adviser to the senior George Bush and US special envoy to Northern Ireland, has argued that Israel must "find a way to gradually bring them into the [political] tent" and that Washington "ought to sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of [Irish Republicanism]." Former British prime minister Tony Blair (who will be working closely with Mitchell) has also recently been citing Northern Ireland as a valuable precedent for Middle East peace, and his chief of staff at the time of the Belfast negotiations, Jonathan Powell, has said that Britain should be talking to Hamas and even to al-Qaida. MEANWHILE IN a recent Guardian op-ed, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams argued that as the international community must "treat the participants on the basis of equality... the Israeli government and other governments have to talk to Hamas." There are certainly some historical parallels between the two situations. Irish Republicans initially boycotted elections, arguing that to contest them would imply an acceptance of Ireland's partition and the de facto recognition of British rule in Ulster, in the same way that Hamas refused to contest the 1996 Palestinian Authority general election on the grounds that this would imply an acceptance of the Oslo Accords and the de facto recognition of Israel. Only after 10 years of rancorous debate did Sinn Fein/IRA, seduced by the relative success of an independent Republican in the 1979 European elections and buoyed by a wave of public sympathy for the hunger strikers two years later, decide to field candidates. The victory of Bobby Sands in the April 1981 British general election led to its gradual embrace of politics, and today Sinn Fein has representation in both the Irish and British parliaments, and is the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Similarly with Hamas which, spurred on by impressive successes in the 2005 Palestinian municipal elections, contested the January 2006 parliamentary vote, winning 74 of the legislature's 132 seats. As former UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told The New York Times two days after this victory, Hamas had "built their identity on opposing elections and the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Now they're the masters of the institutions they have been against." TO THOSE who argue that Hamas's four-year participation in electoral politics has shown no signs of weaning its members off violence (it has, as it promised, "joined the [Palestinian] Legislative Council with our weapons in our hands"), advocates of the so-called Irish model answer that Irish Republicanism's abandonment of its "armed struggle" was also a protracted and difficult process. Rarely acknowledged in this regard is that the fundamental feature of this model was the drawing by the British and Irish political establishments of a wholly dubious distinction between the Republican movement's political and military wings, Sinn Fein and the IRA, which despite separate organizational structures, had overlapping membership and frequently shared command. This allowed the Republican movement to make progress in the political arena while continuing to prosecute its terrorist campaign through what it called its "tactical use of armed strategy." Indeed, it explicitly stated that it would "take power in Ireland with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in the other." Consequently, some of the worst IRA atrocities were committed in the 1980s and early 1990s, as Sinn Fein's political star ascended. Despite Sinn Fein's entry into official negotiations being conditioned on its acceptance of the Mitchell Principles on the adoption of "democratic and exclusively peaceful means" and a commitment to future disarmament, the IRA continued (even after the signing of the Belfast Agreement) to engage in military recruitment and training, target surveillance and intelligence gathering. It was implicated in dozens of murders, most notoriously that of Robert McCartney in January 2005. It also continued inflicting brutal "punishment beatings" on what it considered wayward members of the Catholic community, and raising funds through protection rackets, smuggling and bank robberies, including the $50 million Northern Bank heist which took place as the political leadership conducted final-status-type talks in December 2004. Although the IRA formally announced the end of its terrorist campaign in July 2005 and the complete destruction of its arsenal two months later, the Independent Monitoring Commission (while acknowledging that the Republican movement had taken "a strategic decision to follow a political path" and did not "present a terrorist threat") was still reporting paramilitary and criminal activity throughout much of 2006. The ongoing controversy surrounding the brutal murder of Paul Quinn in October 2007 demonstrates that there is still something rotten in the Republican "state." GIVEN THAT US complicity played a major role in legitimizing the spurious Sinn Fein/IRA divide, Washington's insistence that Hamas cannot "have one foot in politics and the other in terror" should be treated with caution. While it does not currently differentiate between Hamas's political and military wings, future acceptance of a semi-fictional distinction between a political "Change and Reform Movement"' and a military "Izzadin al-Kassam Brigades" which would permit Khaled Mashaal, Mahmoud al-Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh a Gerry Adams-style strut on the international stage cannot be entirely discounted, particularly given last year's reports that advisers to Barack Obama had met with Hamas. This is precisely what OC Intelligence Corps Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash had in mind when he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in March 2005 that "Hamas [was] examining ways to adopt the Irish model." This must be resisted at all costs. The Irish model's toleration of a level of terrorist activity in the interests of reaching an agreement was barely supportable in a situation where IRA attacks were by then seldom indiscriminate (limited largely to military and economic targets) and not intended to cause mass slaughter. But this "Irish solution to an Irish problem" is unthinkable in the case of Hamas, which makes every possible effort to inflict maximum casualties and whose demands are, in any case (unlike those of Republicans), not amenable to political accommodation. If Northern Ireland has a lesson for the Middle East conflict it is this: Terrorists will not lay down their weapons until they feel they are left with no choice. Sinn Fein/IRA's decision to renounce violence was largely the result of exhaustion, an exhaustion born both of repeated military reversals and increasing pressure to end its campaign from elements of its own wider community, from Irish constitutional nationalists and the Catholic Church to the Dublin government and, latterly, Irish America. In other words, its effective defeat. The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is currently preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.