Lessons from Eire

One of the most bitter and protracted conflicts in the latter half of the Twentieth-century finally appears to have run its course. The past five years in Northern Ireland have been a period of progress towards a peaceful and just resolution of the long, sordid history of anti-Catholic discrimination practiced by a Loyalist Protestant majority and its British overseer. But it has not been an easy path to peace, reconciliation, and justice. Northern Ireland’s peace process occasionally has been marred by episodic moments of sheer violent terror. Perhaps no two incidents stand out for their savage brutality than the Omagh car-bombing in August 1998 and the firebombing deaths of Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn — three boys born to a Catholic mother who were being raised as Protestants, [1] earlier that same summer. The Omagh car bomb, which killed twenty-nine people, was the work of an Irish Republican Army splinter group that calls itself “The Real IRA”, naturally. Ballymoney’s fiery bloodbath was the act of Protestant militants. However, throughout this difficult peace process, one in which the same former Senator George Mitchell, currently in the news, played a prominent role, the overseeing power has not assigned blame to the major parties involved. There are lessons to be learned from Ireland’s peace process and the way in which Great Britain and her Northern Irish, Protestant Loyalist majority have conducted themselves. Perhaps these lessons can be applied to Israel-Palestine.

The United States State Department just yesterday added the Real IRA to its list of foreign terrorist organizations (see CNN web site post: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/05/16/us.nireland/index.html). No doubt there was considerable pressure from Great Britain. The dynamics involved in this effort I am sure would fascinate students of international politics. But what is most fascinating about the State Department’s condemnation of the terrorist “Real IRA” is the reaction of Great Britain and the Northern Irish Protestant leadership to terrorist acts by the splinter group. For starters, both the British and the Loyalists seem to have moved beyond the remedial reading and comprehension level where Israel’s political establishment remains mired. The British and their Loyalist allies understand the meaning of the term “splinter group.” They also understand that in any effort to resolve a longstanding, complex ethno-religious, economic and political conflict, it is inevitable that various factions will oppose a given peace process.

The British, with their extensive, elaborate network of collaborators, intelligence agents, armed Protestant Loyalist factions, and of course, the Army with its superbly lethal “counter-terrorist” Special Air Service (SAS) units, have demonstrated remarkable restraint. We do not see in the aftermath of a Real IRA bombing, such as the recent attack on the BBC in London, British Chieftain tanks pouring tank shells into Catholic neighborhoods. We do not read in our papers accounts of British SAS commando units entering Catholic neighborhoods and assassinating, kidnapping, and terrorizing IRA “suspects.” We do not scour the Internet and read stories of prominent British politicians holding Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams directly accountable for every single act of Republican terror, splinter group or otherwise. Could it be that the British role in Northern Ireland is more humane than Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories? Nonsense.

The British conduct in Northern Ireland was as ruthless as any colonial power. Checkpoints were used, and often IRA suspects were shot dead in staged shooting accidents that were later unveiled to have been SAS assassinations. Suspects often were shot in the back. Curfews were implemented. Collective punishment was practiced. The British used administrative detention, and IRA suspects were routinely tortured. The British set up the Protestant-Loyalist dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that had a relationship to the oppressed Catholic minority similar to the pre-Rodney King riot LAPD’s relationship to the African-American community. Recent declassified documents confirm long-standing IRA charges that the British operated death squads in the rural areas of Northern Ireland. British troops in the initial years of their deployment (1969-1972) often used live ammunition against Catholic demonstrators. And IRA suspects held in British prisons were subjected to appalling treatment. In other words, the British war against the IRA was an ugly affair.

Given this history, one would expect the British to cast blame on any and all Irish Republicans and Nationalists for any and all terrorist acts carried out by IRA splinter groups. Instead, we have witnessed a Britain that has demonstrated the political maturity and sophistication so sorely lacking in all the mainstream political sectors of Israeli society. We witness a British Army that displays professional discipline now so obviously eroding in the Israeli Army. And we witness a British polity patient enough to know that peace takes time, and that peace will have its enemies that will do all in their power to undermine progress. Perhaps the single greatest element in the case of Northern Ireland is that the British, the Loyalist Protestant leadership, and the Catholic Sinn Fein are sincerely committed to peace. There are no hidden agendas, i.e., settlements, “facts on the ground,” no “lobby” interjecting its paranoid worldview, no equivalent of Hollywood or American TV network studios and directors making endless movies about bygone persecutions (a new “Anne Frank” movie airs May 20 on ABC, oy vey!), and no sense of preferential status granted by the Great Realtor in the sky.

Pity the Palestinians that their occupiers today are not Cockney-accented Brits. A “Manchester Peace Accords” would have looked and felt like justice.


[1] The boys were ages 11, 10 and 9.  The firebombing occurred in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland.  See The Shawnee News Star On-line “Funeral for Three Northern Ireland Brothers, Victims of Hatred,” AP, July 14, 1998.

Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.