The Northern Ireland model

The Northern Ireland model

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams takes to the pages of the Guardian today to claim some credit for his Northern Irish nationalist party in inducing the Basque separatist group ETA to declare a unilaterial ceasefire over the weekend. While Adams is optimistic, it’s not clear how significant the ceasefire really is — the Spanish government has dismissed it as the desperate action of a group that has become too weak and disorganized to plan attacks. But Adams’ argument that the recent progress toward a Basque settlement has been "modelled on our experience" in the resolution of the Northern Irish conflict is interesting given that other round of peace talks going on this month.   

U.S. envoy George Mitchell has said that his experience as a mediator during the Northern Irish talks makes him optimistic about the prospects for success in the Middle East:

I chaired three separate sets of discussions in Northern Ireland, spanning a period overall of five years. The main negotiation lasted for 22 months. During that time, the effort was repeatedly branded a failure. I was asked at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times when I was leaving because the effort had failed.

And of course, if the objective is to achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so. In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success.

In his column last week, James Traub listed several reasons why the analogy between the two conflicts doesn’t quite hold up, yet the resolution of the formerly intractable Northern Irish Troubles remains a tantalizing example of success for would-be peacemakers in the Middle East. The Irish themselves have often helped propogate the comparison.

But even if the IRA isn’t Hamas and the Israelis aren’t much like the British, are there lessons that can be learned from how the conflict resolved? Mitchell himself put it pretty well back in 2008:

Where men and women have few opportunities and little hope, they are more likely to turn to violence. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not exclusively or even primarily economic. It involved religion, national identity, territory, and more. But underlying it, and exacerbating it, as in most conflicts, were economic problems.[…]

Much progress has been made. In the 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement was struck, Northern Ireland’s economy has shown signs of a turnaround. The region is the fastest growing destination for foreign direct investment in the United Kingdom. Unemployment is low, and there is a move toward economic diversification. There is also a genuine mood of optimism about the future. Many hope that Northern Ireland will be the next phase of the "Celtic Tiger," the apt characterization of the decades-long economic surge in the Republic of Ireland.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the most meaningful progress toward peace in Northern Ireland came during a period of high economic growth for the Republic and Britain as well as rapid European integration that made national boundaries less relevant.

The not very shocking or encouraging lesson of the Northern Irish peace process may be that underlying economic and political conditions matter more than what’s said at the negotiating table. In this light, conditions may well be in place for a peaceful resolution of the Basque insurgency, which is a shadow of its former self in any case. Moreover, nearby Catalonia has proven far more successful at acheiving political and cultural autonomy by working within the system, providing a useful lesson to Basque nationalists.

Despite some hopeful signs on the West Bank, similarly favorable conditions are still probably a long way off in the Middle East. Despite the hopeful rhetoric, Mitchell probably knows this.