Hamas isn't the IRA, and the Middle East isn't Northern Ireland.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 17 2010 7:26 AM

Hamas Isn't the IRA

And when it comes to the peace process, the Middle East isn't Northern Ireland.

Hamas. Click image to expand.
Is it possible to negotiate with Hamas?

With the resumption of Arab-Israeli direct talks comes the regurgitation of a minority view that these talks are destined to fail because Hamas is excluded. The first salvo in this ongoing campaign came from Palestinian-American blogger Ali Abunimah, an advocate of the one-state solution, who expounded upon the need for recognizing Hamas in the New York Times. Peter Beinart made the same case in a broader Daily Beast column about Obama's failed foreign policy. What both had in common, apart from thinking rather generously of a totalitarian and anti-Semitic Islamist party, is use of the Irish Republican Army and Northern Ireland as a convenient analogy for the Middle East peace process. Didn't the British government eventually sit down with Sinn Fein, the IRA's "political wing," after decades of murderous mayhem in Belfast and bombings in the Tube, pubs, and other targets on the mainland? And can't the same lessons learned from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which inaugurated the end of the Troubles, be applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

There are many obvious reasons why this analogy fails. The IRA never employed suicide bombers or called for the wholesale destruction of Great Britain. Nor was it the client of a theocratic state intent on becoming a nuclear power. It was also thoroughly integrated with Sinn Fein and could therefore act with greater strategic cohesion than the fragmented Hamas, whose political and paramilitary leadership is spread throughout Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus, Syria. But, most important, the analogy misconstrues the history of the Northern Ireland peace process and the ultimate aim of the Good Friday Agreement, which was, chiefly, to undermine the terrorists, not to legitimize them.


Abunimah and Beinart both refer to Hamas' 2006 election victory, although neither acknowledges that the group has twice refused to hold new national elections this year, fearing a likely walloping at the polls. Moreover, Hamas has loudly denounced each and every framework for Arab-Israeli negotiations from the Clinton-brokered Oslo Accords of 1993, which created Palestinian democracy in the first place, to the Bush administration's 2002 roadmap for peace. It's worth measuring all this against the way "inclusive dialogue" with the IRA really proceeded.

The earliest instance of talks between the British government and the IRA occurred during a temporary truce in 1972, with no preconditions set by the former. The IRA took this as a sign of the British government's wobbliness, and top operatives, including IRA leader Martin McGuinness and future Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (who was then in British custody), were flown to London by the Royal Air Force, where they simply stated their demands for full British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The truce subsequently broke down, leading to the "Bloody Friday" attacks of July 21, 1972, in which 22 bombs ravaged Belfast within 75 minutes, killing nine people and injuring 130 more. "Talking to terrorists" had plainly failed in such an anything-goes context, and 1972 marked the single deadliest year of the Troubles.

From then on, both the British and Irish governments instituted a constitutional "bottom line" in the form of two preconditions for negotiating with the IRA. First, they refused to negotiate with an organization that was still involved in an active military campaign; second, they insisted on the "consent principle," which stated that the future of Northern Ireland must be decided by the people of the province. Since this province contained a majority of Protestant unionists, there was every possibility that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom. The IRA's capacity to reject the will of the people was therefore nullified.

The consent principle was further enhanced and reinforced by the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, a joint initiative by both the British and Irish governments, which called for a "permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence" and allowed only "democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process" to be admitted to the table. (Again, Hamas would have trouble meeting these conditions.)

This declaration marked a turning point in the peace process, because it effectively meant that by the time the IRA had agreed to its next cease-fire, in 1994, it had de facto acceded to British parameters. That's because the IRA had been defeated militarily. Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, the British security services had either killed or captured leading republican militants, and the rest of the IRA was so infiltrated with spies and informants that, according to one British estimate, in 1994, eight out of nine of its planned attacks in Belfast were thwarted. Even the most optimistic accounts by IRA brass at this time conceded that only a "stalemate" was possible. (The 1994 cease-fire broke down over the matter of weapons decommissioning, yet even here the IRA's McGuinness acknowledged to an Irish official that sooner or later the IRA's guns would have to be "banjaxed.")


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