Posted on March 30, 1998 in Washington Watch

Peace talks designed to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland are entering a crucial phase. The major parties to the negotiations have set an early April deadline for themselves so that an agreement, if one is reached, can be submitted to voters in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in mid-May.

At stake in the negotiations are issues of justice, history and territory–issues with which Arabs are quite familiar.

In many ways the Irish question parallels the Palestine question. In recognition of this fact, the two peoples have, over the years, demonstrated solidarity with one another. Irish Republican manifestoes in the early part of this century express their support for the “Arab people struggling against British imperialism.” This has continued up to the present day with the Irish government frequently taking strong positions in support of both Palestinian and Lebanese rights.

The roots of the oppression visited upon the Irish and the Arabs are similar. But there are differences as well. Long before the British introduced their brand of settler colonialism to Palestine, using the Zionist movement as their willing agents, they had imposed their regime on Ireland.

For centuries the dominated Irish Catholic community lived under harsh British rule. They were denied freedom and basic rights in their own land. On a number of occasions, they rebelled and were brutally subdued. They were imprisoned or forced into exile. Their lands were confiscated.

The long and brutal history of British conquest took an immense toll on the land and its people. There are physical reminders everywhere. In every part of Ireland, there are the remains of destroyed Irish churches, castles, and forts, commingling with walls and mansions built by the occupiers to reinforce their rule.

The denial of Irish national and economic rights often had devastating human consequences. During the potato famine of the 1840s, for example, Ireland lost almost ½ of its people–over one million to starvation and another one million who were forced to emigrate.

What is not widely known outside of Ireland were the genocidal aspects of this famine. Throughout the years of this “great famine” Ireland continued to export huge quantities of food to feed the British Empire. The Irish starved to death because they were not permitted to eat what their land produced. All they were allowed was the potato–when it became infected by blight, they starved.

This history of oppression is deeply imbedded in the consciousness of many in Ireland today.

During the centuries of British rule, the Irish repeatedly rebelled. The rebellion after World War I, while exacting a heavy toll, finally resulted in Irish independence–but not for all of Ireland. The 26 counties of the south were declared the Republic of Ireland. The six counties of the north, in which lived the greatest concentration of Protestants, remained as part of the United Kingdom.

The dream of a united Ireland, free of British rule, continues to dominate the political thinking of Irish nationalists in both the Republic and the north. At the same time the north’s Protestant majority has fervently held to their desire to remain British citizens connected to the United Kingdom.

The Irish dream of a united Ireland is expressed in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland where articles two and three, in part, declare that “the national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and territorial seas.”

As citizens of the north, the Catholic population continued to suffer discrimination in employment, housing and politics. Their struggle for full civil rights paralleled their aspiration to be part of a unified Ireland.

When these Irish nationalists, as they are called, rose up in demonstrations, they were brutally suppressed. This suppression only served to further embolden them. As a result, for the last three decades the north has been a bloody battleground between some Irish nationalists who have waged a violent campaign against Britain and British forces and extremist Protestants militias who have wreaked retribution on the Catholic community.

After 30 years of violence, during which time almost 4,000 have been killed, the governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland together with most of the parties of Northern Ireland embarked on peace talks to resolve the conflict.

The fact that talks are taking place is significant–but after more than six months of negotiations there are deep gaps that still remain between the parties. At issue here are two conflicting ideologies with goals that are essentially incompatible. Both sides insist that they support a democratic outcome that supports majority rule and the right of “consent.” To the nationalists that is interpreted to mean the majority of all Irish who seek the unity of Ireland, to the Unionists “consent” means the right of the majority in the north to determine their fate–which continues to link them to Britain.

These are the views of the competing parties of the north. The governments of Britain and Ireland, tired of decades of conflict, have sought to create a compromise framework that would reconcile the conflicting claims. This general framework involves some of the following elements:

    *The creation of a north-south body, presumably comprised of ministers, that would have some limited authority over mainly economic matters–this is in deference to the nationalists who want some semblance of north-south unity.

    *The election of an assembly in the north–in deference to the majority unionists who want to retain their status. This assembly of the north will participate in an east-west union with other elected assemblies from the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain.

    *The Republic of Ireland will modify its constitution, especially articles two and three–in order to ease the concerns of the Unionists. Great Britain will alter its Government of Ireland Act, which defines British control over the north.

Needless to say, these proposals have sparked an intense debate throughout the whole of Ireland. The debate amongst the Irish over the requirement that the Republic of Ireland change articles two and three is especially fascinating. This issue fills the daily Irish press, radio call-in programs and is the subject of a number of public events.

The Prime Minister of the Republic who is committed to this change is facing a rebellion from some in his own party. His position, that the imperative to make peace should overrule ideology, is tempered by his assurance that the changes he will propose to the constitution will not do fundamental damage to the definition of the Irish nation. Furthermore the Prime Minister has sought to calm his supporters by insisting he will propose that changes be made only in the context of a total agreement on all outstanding issues. The Prime Minister has done this in response to internal party pressure that maintains that changes to their constitution should only be made if the British agree to drop their rule over the north.

Other Irish nationalists are deeply offended with the notion of any change at all. For these nationalists, both north and south, Ireland is the island and they refuse to accept its partition and the subsequent loss of Irish identity to any part or any people of the “Irish” territory.

At present, however, it appears that the views of the government leading to a compromise are supported by the majority of Irish, north and south. For this majority, the violence in the north has been unsettling. They want it to end. They want to build their society and get on with their lives. As one put it “we can’t continue to shape our future with the dead stones of the past. I would rather have the reality of peace, than the illusion of unity.” Such an assertion, of course, only serves to inflame the ideological nationalists.

While reflecting on the similarities between aspects of this Irish debate and the Palestinian debate over their charter and the peace process, it is interesting to note the differences as well.

In the first place the Irish begin from a point where they control 26 counties and have a Republic. In Palestine, it was the settlers who won. In Palestine, it is the Israeli state that is demanding that the occupied Palestinians change their charter, while no similar demand has been placed on the Israelis to change either the charters of their parties (that support Eretz Israel) or their racist law of return and the absentee property law that allows Israel to continue to dispossess Palestinians and Israeli Arabs of land and their rights.

In the case of Ireland, the oppressed minority community of the dismembered north has, to some extent, the support of the state to the south. Because the Palestinian track has been severed from the other Arab tracks to the peace process, the occupied Palestinians stand alone in a vulnerable position, with no leverage.

Finally the Irish have worked in recent years to cultivate support from the Irish American community which has some strong nationalist currents within it. Despite the centrality of the U.S.-British relationship, the Irish American community has made inroads in U.S. politics and created sufficient pressure requiring the Administration to balance its British policy with its Irish policy. This has contributed to a more or less evenhanded U.S. policy in the Irish peace process.

Even if an agreement, like the one proposed by the two governments is accepted by the major competing parties in the North, it is not clear that it will bring immediate peace to Ireland.

Nationalists will continue to aspire to regain their lost rights and Unionists will not easily accept any move toward Irish unity. The legacy of a long history of oppression and racism will continue to take its toll on the Irish, as it continues to take its toll in the Middle East.

The Irish, like the Arabs, don’t easily forget their history.

But, as those who seek peace point out, history is important. But history can either be mastered by our actions and our determination to create a new reality, or history can be a tyrant that masters us and locks us in the past.

The reality in Ireland, like the Middle East, is that there are, for better or worse, two distinct peoples who now live in one land. Just as the nationalists must recognize this and accept it, the other party must recognize that they live in an Irish sea and must accommodate themselves to coexistence and equality. History can be overcome, but only through justice.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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