VIEWPOINT: Beyond Exportability – From Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine

VIEWPOINT: Beyond Exportability – From Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine

Brendan Ciarán Browne

Although perhaps somewhat cynical; exporting the perceived successes of the Northern Irish ‘Peace Process’ to other intractable conflicts has for some time been in vogue. Books have been written on the topic (Wilson, 2010; White, 2013) column inches published in leading international newspapers and a proliferation of Non-Governmental ‘Peace’ organisations as big businesses have emerged in their own right. Politicians from across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland have appeared as ‘consultants’ in other regions where conflict has been the norm, including; Colombia, the Basque country and indeed, Israel-Palestine.

Having recently been invited to take part in an academic roundtable organised by an Irish NGO on the topic of ‘Lessons from the Northern Irish Peace Process’, I had the chance to share a platform with leading academics and architects of the Peace Agreement. In preparation for the event I spent time thinking deeply about the exportability narrative and comparing the Northern Irish experience to that of Palestine (an area where I have long standing connections with over 10 years experience of living and working). In so doing I reached the conclusion that we ought to tread very carefully before seeking to export lessons en masse, particularly to areas of the world where the scourge of intractable conflict has origins in the deeply problematic colonial practices of those in the West. As others have argued (Richmond, 2010), the exportation of Western, ‘liberal democratic’ peace processes, including in this case to the Israel-Palestine theatre, can be considered problematic in and of itself.

When assessing the long-term consequences of any peace process on a society transitioning away from violence it is worth analysing the impact that the arrangement has had on the most marginalised in society, particularly children and young people. In a paper published in 2014, I noted that: “Whereas 20 years on from the ceasefires, Northern Ireland is a markedly safer place in which to grow up, for a significant number of those living on the sharp edge of the transition… the everyday lived experience of growing up in post-conflict Northern Ireland is less optimistic” (Browne & Dwyer, 2014: 792).

At the time of writing, the much lauded consociational (power sharing) Northern Ireland Assembly, designed to bring together political representatives from across the sectarian divide ensuring effective cross-community governance, has collapsed. Thus, the primary decision-making organ of Northern Ireland has been temporarily incapacitated at a time of regional instability emanating from an impending Brexit. Additionally, whereas the levels of inter-community violence between Protestant and Catholic have dramatically decreased, Northern Ireland remains a society characterised by division in terms of; space, education and community interaction. Direct violence has been substituted with the scourge of structural violence (Galtung, 1969). Research published in 2014 by the Child Poverty Alliance noted that more than 1 in 4 children in Northern Ireland live in poverty (almost double the UK average) with 1 in 10 living in extreme poverty. Additionally, as reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2018, Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of the working age population out of work than across the United Kingdom with the subsequent impact this has on relative and actual poverty. Thus, all things considered, one must ask critically; what aspect of the peace-building process are we seeking to package as exportable?

Temporarily setting to one side the above, there are those who claim that the most powerful narrative to be exported is the message that ‘not all conflicts are intractable’. Whereas a one-size fits all model of peace-building is rarely that which is packaged for export, aspects of the Northern Ireland experience are worthy of consideration in other contexts. One powerful example is the experience of engaging with grassroots and community actors as primary agents for societal change. Additionally, the role played by genuine/non-partisan external actors (notably the US) to help mediate disputes is particularly useful, so too the need to ensure an ‘equality’ agenda finds prominence in any final peace accord.

With that in mind, here’s why uncritically promoting the Northern Ireland model of ‘peace building’ in the current context of Israel-Palestine is doomed to fail, despite the best efforts of a growing number of entrepreneurial peaceniks; international peace NGOs with ‘sexy’ titles.

Whereas in Northern Ireland by the time the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998 there was a sense of ‘war weariness’ and a stalemate between multiple actors (including the British government), in Palestine/Israel the asymmetrical nature of the conflict is such that there is little to suggest Israel has any incentive for the situation to shift. When one considers the potential risk posed to Israelis by any Palestinian armed insurgency; although crude, a cursory glance at the number of those killed in recent years reveals that the Israelis have little to fear (for a more detailed analysis of figures, see,  B’tselem; Human Rights Watch). An expanding arsenal of cutting edge weaponry and a military apparatus that protects their own citizens from what have been referred to as ‘fireworks’ (Finkelstein, 2018) fired by Palestinian armed factions in Gaza points to an Israeli government more interested in upgrading its military prowess rather than seeking ways to de-escalate and find peaceful solutions.

Additionally, the interconnectedness of the economic situation in the region suggests that the incentive for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories – a step that some feel would help to breathe new life into the flatlined ‘peace process’ – does not exist. As leading academics such as Sara Roy (2007) have noted, the occupation and economic exploitation of Palestine is maintained as it is fiscally beneficial to the subsequent growth and development of the Israeli state. Israeli practices of dominion in the Occupied Territories extend to control of all natural resources, including fertile land, and the suppression of Palestinian exports that could bolster Palestinian economic autonomy. Furthermore, any suggestion of two separate economies operating side-by-side is ignorant to the reality that notes the existence of an Israeli economy operating alongside a donor economy in Palestine, both of which have coalesced to devastating effect in generating a sense of Palestinian economic dependency.

Whereas in Northern Ireland, the United States played a key role in acting as a genuine impartial observer, with Senator George Mitchell particularly useful in mediating talks and generating the climate of peace; in Palestine-Israel the US acts much to the contrary. High profile events orchestrated by the Americans in recent times, including the shift of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have further demonstrated the extent to which the Americans view with disdain the sentiments expressed in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Moreover, the sheer volume of military aid the US exports to Israel, noting that in fact it was Barack Obama who handed Israel its largest ever military aid package in 2016, highlights the extent to which the US has never genuinely acted as an honest broker for peace. It is perhaps even more symbolic that Mitchell, the much-lauded mediator and broker of peace in Northern Ireland, quit as Middle East envoy in 2011 following a frustrating two year stint in Israel-Palestine.

Despite the intractability of the conflict in Northern Ireland there was acceptance and endorsement by many of the existence of two diverse communities who share a common ancestry/heritage and who have a crossover in terms of identities, thus allowing for a flexibility and the generation of moderate, middle-of-the-road political voices. Nothing remotely similar exists in the Palestine-Israeli theatre, in fact as has been argued before (Browne, 2017) it is the proliferation of diametrically opposed narratives that render the attempted ‘middle ground’ impossible to achieve. True – Irish Catholics suffering discrimination in Northern Ireland had to fight for an equal existence and campaign for greater representation in political circles, however in the Palestine-Israel theatre, the very legitimacy of a Palestinian identity, heritage, historical presence on the land, is in itself called into question. Thus, a cultural apartheid of Palestine and the Palestinians is exercised alongside an ongoing practice of ethnic cleansing that manifests itself through the generation of Israeli ‘Facts on the ground’, an expansion of what Halper (2007; 2009) has referred to as ‘The matrix of control’.

In Northern Ireland there are clear examples of incremental positive steps for change over time, including; the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1993 Hume/Adams initiatives (which brought militant republicanism out from the cold). In Palestine- Israel, there has never been a ‘Peace Process’. The steps taken along the road to the flawed 1993 Oslo arrangement were incremental ways to further de-legitimise Palestinian statehood aspirations. Oslo, with its convoluted carving up of the West Bank under the rubric of security and its creation of a Palestinian Authority acting as the custodians of the Occupation, has in reality aided the Israeli project of complete West Bank annexation.

Self-appointed exporters of the Northern Ireland peace process, those whose primary focus is on inter-group dialogue and cross-community engagement (all laudable initiatives at a more appropriate time) should be first turning their attention to campaigning more vociferously on the core issues at stake; the ongoing expansion of the Israeli settlement project, the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (see the recent case of the bedouin community in Khan Al-ahmar), and the entrenched siege of Gaza. Beyond exportability, the Palestinian- Israeli theatre should not be reduced to a conflict laboratory for NGOs, ‘Peace Groups’ or the like from Northern Ireland; those who wish to ‘test out’ western, liberal-democratic peace processes that haven’t really worked anyway.

Browne, B., & Dwyer, C. (2014). Navigating risk: Understanding the impact of the conflict on children and young people in Northern Ireland. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 37(9), 792-805.
Browne, B. (2017). ‘Transitional Justice: the Case of Palestine’ in C. Lawther, L. Moffatt & D. Jacobs (Eds.) The International Handbook on Transitional Justice, Elgar.
Finkelstein, N. (2018). Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom. University of California Press.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of peace research, 6(3), 167-191.
Halper, J. (2007). ‘From protest to resistance: the making of a critical Israeli’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 36(3), 36-49.
Halper, J. (2009). Obstacles to peace. A reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalén: ICAHD.
Richmond, O. (Ed.) (2010). Palgrave advances in peacebuilding: Critical developments and approaches. Springer.
Roy, S. (2007). Failing Peace: Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. London: Pluto.
White, T. J. (Ed.). (2013) Lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process. University of Wisconsin Press.
Wilson, R. (2010). The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? University of Manchester Press.


Brendan Ciarán Browne is Assistant Professor, Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, member of the Trinity International Development Initiative and Fellow at the Trinity Centre for Post Conflict Justice, Trinity College, Dublin.