From Belfast to Tel Aviv: The Irish Proof of Concept that Intractable Conflicts Can Be Solved

Twenty years ago, the weary people of Ireland experienced the political equivalent of a miracle. The “Troubles” was the euphemistic name given to a civil war, where for two decades, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland clashed violently over power and the religious affiliation of their society. The conflict left 3600 people dead, scores wounded and a seemingly incurable wound at the heart of their society. People around the world became numbed to the carnage, resigned that the madness would never end. But in 1998, after long and tortuous U.S. brokered negotiations, the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decided that “enough was enough.” In parallel referendums, Catholics and Protestants chose moderation and common sense over enmity and violence.

The resulting “Good Friday” or Belfast Agreement has stood the test of time. Political life in northern Ireland today is far from harmonious. The communities remain divided and separated in many ways. But the days of constant terror and killings have been replaced by a reasonable modus vivendi and a pragmatic willingness to stay engaged. At a time when we seek models of reconciliation for our own region, there is much we might we learn from this remarkable triumph of decency and forgiveness.

The good Friday agreement itself was in fact three parallel agreements in one. First and foremost, it was a political agreement between the two adversaries — where the rival Protestant and Catholic communities agreed to a power sharing arrangement in the governing of Northern Ireland. Secondly, it resolved the question of sovereignty democratically: The majority of people Northern Irish are Protestant, and they wished to remain part of the UK, Yet, the agreement also explicitly recognized that a substantial group in Northern Ireland and the majority of people on the entire island of Ireland, prefer a single, united Ireland. So the final part of the agreement broke down the walls and barriers dividing the two sides of the island.

The many concessions involved were not easily reached. It took much arm-twisting and patience from President Clinton and his dogged liaison, Senator George Mitchel. The British parliament also did its part, relinquishing historic claims on the southern part of Ireland. While preferring to retain Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom, it acknowledged Belfast’s strong links to the Republic of Ireland. If in the future, the people of Northern Ireland prefer unification, the British will not stand in the way.

Like any compromise – nobody got everything they wanted. But it allowed the parties to move on.

Many lessons about creating conditions for peace can be learned from the Irish for instance in the area of education. Myriam Darmoni is an Israeli educator who specializes in local programs that feature the Irish “success” as a model for evaluation. She explains that much of the implementation was possible because both Protestant and Catholic parents were convinced that the “Better Together” slogan was actually true: by working cooperatively, they could give their children greater opportunities and a safer and more prosperous future in a world that would otherwise leave them behind economically.

In recent years, a steady shuttle of influential Israelis and Palestinians– of all political and religious stripes and shades have begun to visit Northern Ireland (mostly under the radar screen) to see such educational programs and sort out what might be relevant for our own “intractable” conflict.

Of course Israeli and the Palestinian dynamics are entirely different. We do not share a common language, making direct communication far more challenging. Cultural references – and the lack of a common “European identity” make the divide even more formidable. And of course, political leaders have not yet managed to put together a framework agreement that creates the tranquility for real healing.

Nonetheless, there is much to learned. This is particularly true for innumerable Israelis and Palestinians, who, with some justification, have become defeatist about the possibility of ever reaching an agreement that allows the two societies to move forward towards a peaceful resolution of our differences.

Next week – many of the key protagonists from Ireland will be coming to Tel Aviv to share their perspectives at the International Conference on Innovations in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University. Among the guests at this twentieth anniversary celebration of the Good Friday Agreement are past Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers, clergy, civil society leaders. The Northern Irish experience — from the role of economics as a tool for facilitating cooperation to the empowering of civil society to build bridges between communities — is worth hearing about.

Just as Goldstar beer can learn a thing or two from Guinness brewers, and U2 might be able to help Mashina musically – Israelis and Palestinians who still dream of peace can benefit from Ireland’s extraordinary learning curve. Indeed, anyone who wants to renew their sense of hope, that they might yet offer our children a future free of conflict and fear, is invited to Tel Aviv University. Come glean insights and inspiration from Ireland, who for twenty years now, has redefined its destiny.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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