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Letter from Ireland
The Troubles ended in a “peace of sorts,” but it’s no model for the Middle East.

John Hume and David Trimble in Belfast, May 21, 1998

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Clifford D. May

Dublin — In 1978, I was a young foreign correspondent assigned to cover “the Troubles,” the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, between those loyal to the British Crown and those determined to make Ireland a united and independent nation. There were “paramilitaries” on both sides. Terrorism — bombings, assassinations, and other forms of violence targeting civilians for political ends — was among the principal weapons employed.

But in at least one way, terrorism was different then: Although I sometimes worried that I might end up on the wrong Belfast street at the wrong time, I was confident that no one saw me as a target. Journalists were neutrals. “Loyalists” and “Republicans” alike were eager to tell me their stories, and have me retell those stories to distant audiences. Without fear, I would sit down with hard men and ask tough questions.

At some point over the years since, new technologies and ideologies brought changes that became obvious when the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl took his notebook and pen to a 2002 meeting with terrorists in Karachi. They had a different approach to shaping the narrative — one that would entail beheading Pearl on camera and posting the video on the Internet.

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The Troubles wracked Northern Ireland for almost 30 years. More than 1,500 people were killed. In those days, that was a serious number. But early in the new century, nearly twice as many innocent people would be killed on a single day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Arlington, Va. Meanwhile, in Syria over the past year, a conflict with ethno-religious-political undercurrents has taken some 20,000 lives. Perceiving this as an inflationary trend does not inspire optimism.

George Will, the venerable columnist, once cited Northern Ireland as one of the world’s two “intractable” conflicts. The other was what was then known as the Arab–Israeli conflict, today more usually called the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, though in reality it is now Islamist regimes and movements that are most seriously waging what they call a jihad against Israel.

Will was wrong about Ireland. The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Two Northern Irish politicians, John Hume and David Trimble, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — a rare occasion on which the awards were actually deserved.

Today, Northern Ireland remains British. But a good road connects the Republic in the south with the United Kingdom in the north, and no border guards or checkpoints impede travel between the two. Former terrorists, reformed if not repentant, serve in Northern Ireland’s government. Rightly or wrongly, Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with one earlier this year.

On a brief return to Northern Ireland this week, it was apparent that there are still tensions, still segregated neighborhoods, still pubs where Protestants and Catholics do not mix. But the Troubles ended when most people on both sides accepted the idea of an imperfect peace, when they came to see compromise as preferable to more killing and dying, and when they tired of the poverty and degradation that chronic carnage brings in its wake.

Should that give us hope that peace in the Middle East also is possible and perhaps even imminent? Absolutely not.

At its worst, the IRA never sought the destruction of Britain and never vowed to wipe Protestants off the Irish map. The most extreme Protestant paramilitaries did not argue that southern Catholics had no right to self-determination.

These days, it is fashionably multicultural and politically correct to assign blame in roughly equal measure to Israelis and Palestinians. It also is patently false. Time and again, Israelis have demonstrated their willingness to compromise in order to achieve an imperfect peace with their neighbors, not least those in Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas, by contrast, is openly committed to Israel’s annihilation, attacking those who would settle for less as traitors and apostates. Fatah’s spokesmen, at least in Arabic, express solidarity with Hamas on that score. Meanwhile, Iran’s rulers, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood all continue to insist that they will never accept Israel, that they will not allow even the tiniest swath of the Middle East to be ruled by non-Muslims, least of all the despised Jews, who, it is charged with bewildering inconsistency, defied the Prophet Mohammed in ancient Arabia and have no roots in the region.

“There are fascist forces in this world,” David Trimble said in his 1998 Nobel Lecture. “The first step to their defeat is to define them.” In Ireland, enough people took that step, and what Trimble has termed “a sort of peace” has been the admirable result. In the Middle East, too many are still unwilling or unable to take that first step, and so no other steps can follow.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.



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