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Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine

Some parallel and divergent lines

At the one-state conference in London (17-18 November) we were invited to consider possible analogies between the situation in Israel/Palestine and the situation in Northern Ireland. My own principle political experience has been in Northern Ireland. I have a Ph.D. for a thesis on the history of the Ulster Presbyterian community there and I have published a book on the same subject - and this is a large part of the experience that has led me to consider that a single state is the best option for Israel/Palestine. So the analogy is of interest to me and I should be in a position to say interesting things about it. But of course it is also fraught with danger, principally that all the possible disagreements over how to understand the Israel/Palestine conflict will simply get tangled up with all the possible disagreements over how to understand the Irish conflict.



In attempting this risky project I am going to simply take my own understanding of the Northern Ireland conflict for granted, arguing on the basis of it without considering the objections that could be made. I was a member of a small Marxist group - the British and Irish Communist organisation - whose origins lay with a group of workers mostly from the Republic of Ireland working in London (I left the B&ICO in 1987 and do not know if all the views I am expressing here would be shared by my old comrades nowadays).

They had a presence in Belfast and when the troubles broke out they were active in helping to defend Catholic areas against Protestant attack. However, as atheists coming from the Republic of Ireland, they were also aware of the actual character of the impulse towards Irish independence and of the state that had developed out of it. They knew that Catholicism was central to the self-definition of the people who had felt alienated from the profoundly anti-Catholic culture of the United Kingdom - and that this was a much more important factor than what there was of a principled Socialist anti-Imperialism. They weren't unduly upset that the result had been, inevitably, a Catholic state for a Catholic people, but they did understand that this would pose problems for the Protestant people in the North.

At the time it was common - as it had been in the early twentieth century - to dismiss the Ulster Protestants as mere creatures of British politics and to believe that their opposition to a united Ireland could be blown away with a few stern words from their British masters. Experience of the reality on the ground in Northern Ireland and a very intense study of the history of the area, revealed that there was much more to it than that and that partition was the reflection of a social reality in Ireland - the existence of two national communities. At a time when militant republicanism thought that one last push would bring about a united Ireland, we annoyed a lot of people by insisting that for the foreseeable future a separate Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom, was the framework in which we would have to work if we wanted to develop a politics of equal rights and socialism; and that the struggle for a united Ireland was an unnecessary and destructive complication. That argument is now more or less universally accepted, even - in practise if not in theory - by Sinn Fein.



Which suggests a first point that could be made in relation to Israel/Palestine. Nations are not biological and eternal entities, they evolve according to historical circumstances and it is not unusual for the common culture which enables people to act together as a social unit to be based on religion. Although I am not myself in favour of a 'binational' arrangement for Israel/Palestine, I think the existence of two nations has to be recognised. In the case of the Jewish nation, it may not have existed in the 1930s but it exists now, largely thanks to the efforts of Adolf Hitler. Nations are forged in adversity - their existence is revealed when people come together in national defence against a perceived external threat. Jews are culturally a very diverse people but in Israel, feeling themselves under threat, they weld into a single homogeneous whole. The Palestinian opposition has singularly failed to break that homogeneity, to exploit the cultural and political differences that do exist. They would be better placed to do this if they recognised Israeli Jews as a group whose national character has to be taken seriously. At the conference there was a great reluctance to do this, largely I think because of a legalistic assumption that recognising the existence of a nation was the same thing as recognising certain rights attaching to the concept, including the right to form a state.

I tend to see the problem not in terms of legal rights but in terms of the rapport of social forces. There is no law where there is not a body capable of enforcing the law - a state; and this leaves me pretty cynical with regard to the idea of international law, in the absence of an international state structure.

In this respect I attach myself to the tradition of the British political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes argued that any state - even a tyrannous one - is better than no state. The state - as Hobbes himself was well aware - is almost always founded on violence and injustice - the ethnic cleansing of North America comes to mind. But without the state, civilised life is impossible. A case in point is Iraq. A state structure was established in Iraq, probably under the monarchy, though it was able to implement the huge reform programme that took place after the 1958 revolution. Through all the disruption caused by the subsequent coups, the war with Iran in the 1980s and the international policy of systematic starvation of the population that went under the name of 'sanctions', it maintained a basic level of stability throughout the country (or, in that last period, most of the country, outside the areas controlled by the Kurds). It was destroyed by the US and British invasion and the country is now in a state of anarchy, meaning war between the different elements of the society that are capable of organising to assert what they perceive to be their interests. It is the 'state of nature' almost exactly as Hobbes, drawing on his own experience of the collapse of the British state in the 1640s, described it.

It is not without significance that the people responsible for this - the leaders in the US and in Britain - owe a theoretical allegiance to the ideas of the great anti-Hobbesian John Locke, theorist of the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1689/90, which established the Protestant tyranny in Ireland. Locke argued that civil society was a voluntary association of free individuals and ought to be able to function without a state, meaning that if people collapsed into vicious anarchy in the absence of a state it was their own fault, they were clearly inferior people. So if you smash the Iraqi state, the ensuing anarchy is the fault of the Iraqi people.



One great difference between the national conflict in Northern Ireland and other national conflicts is that Northern Ireland was not, never was and is not now, a sovereign state. It was part of the United Kingdom, one of the most stable, unshakeable states in the world. I would argue that actually the UK government had set it up reluctantly in such a way as to try to get rid of it, or at least keep it at a distance. Unlike any other part of the UK at the time, Northern Ireland was given a separate Parliament, a huge gleaming structure, 'Stormont', which, when the grounds in which it is set are taken into account, rivals the Houses of Parliament in its splendour. And part of the deal was the establishment of a 'Council of Ireland' through which it was hoped - I believe sincerely - that the Irish would settle their differences and come together in a common state that would still be economically and morally part of the British world.

Of course the opposite occurred. The two Irelands drifted apart. But Stormont had the invidious effect of putting the Ulster Protestants into a position of perpetual, visible superiority over the Ulster Catholics - a permanent majority over a permanent minority. It was, as one of the Unionist politicians at the time warned it would be, 'a factory of grievances'. No serious development of political differentiation on economic and social questions was possible in these circumstances. The Unionists had to vote as a bloc to preserve the Union; the Catholics had to vote as a bloc behind their most politically energetic section, the Nationalists, in order to make their presence felt at all. But Westminster controlled the money and, in broad terms, Stormont simply rubberstamped Westminster's economic and social policy while being excluded from the political struggles by which that economic and social policy had been produced. The parties that were capable of ruling the UK - the Conservative and Labour Parties - refused to organise, contest elections or even take members in Northern Ireland, which meant that we were excluded from the politics of the state of which we were a part.

That - the insistence that the people of Northern Ireland had the right, so long as the province was part of the UK - to participate fully in British politics, became the central focus of our political work from the mid-1970s onwards. We argued that any form of devolved government could only exacerbate and perpetuate the sectarian division. Powersharing between Protestant and Catholic obliges Protestant and Catholic to maintain the sectarian blocs while the real decisions on social and economic policy continue to be made elsewhere, in Westminster, in a political conflict in which we were not allowed to participate. Of course in those days there was a British Labour Party which had some pretensions to representing a distinctively working class interest. Westminster politics was a more attractive prospect then than it is now.

In 1972 the local Parliament, Stormont, was abolished. The province was governed directly from Westminster. This did not represent a destruction of, or even a threat to the existence of the state, since Westminster had always been the real sovereign government. Bad as things might have become in the 1970s, the country never collapsed into anything like the sort of anarchy we have seen in the Balkans and in the Lebanon. This is precisely because we had a state structure which could not be shaken by our little local difficulties. But it was the mere fact of this state structure, not the policies pursued by the successive governments, that saved us and eventually, I would suggest, produced something of a solution to the problem.

The successive governments of all types insisted on defining the problem in terms of restoring some form of local government. A wearisome succession of 'initiatives' followed one after the other, all futile because the state machinery was functioning perfectly well and, underneath it, out of view of most political commentators, a very exciting development was taking place. Catholics, who couldn't (or wouldn't. The extent to which it was a matter of discrimination or boycott could be discussed) get involved in the administration of the state under the guardianship of their traditional enemies, the Protestants, were now joining the civil service and other public bodies in large numbers. Increasingly the 'Protestant state for a Protestant people' as Ulster had been infamously dubbed in the 1930s, was becoming a state for all its citizens.

Through the 1980s, this influx of Catholics into the public life of Northern Ireland was increasingly assuming positions of power and responsibility, a sea change that had little to do with any political or legal developments - even the body of anti-discriminatory legislation that had been introduced, never mind the futile attempts at reimposing an unnecessary layer of devolved government with guaranteed positions for Catholic politicians. This, I believe, is the process that eventually persuaded the leadership of the Republican movement that there was no point in continuing the armed struggle. A community that was now thriving within the Northern Ireland context was not going to make the sacrifices necessary for the campaign to overthrow it. It was by an instinct of real political genius that the Sinn Fein leadership was able to switch from militant republicanism to the party best able to ride the new mood of get-up-and-go optimism that was now inspiring the Catholic community (to the great disarray of the Protestants it must be said). But this development was not something that anyone had willed or planned deliberately. It was a dynamic entirely created by the absence of a devolved government and by the resilience of the British state structure, quite independent of the more or less irrelevant intentions of any British (or Irish) politicians - all fixated as they were on the need to restore devolved government.



What possible relevance could all that have to the incomparably more vicious Israel/Palestine problem?

The Israelis have created a state. It was done in violence and injustice but as already remarked there is nothing very unusual about that. It remains a remarkable achievement, especially given the diversity of peoples that came together to do it. In his recent debate with Ilan Pappé, Uri Avnery, defending the two state option, said that there was no way that having created their Jewish state, the Jews were going to dismantle it. It was clear that Avnery, who has done so much to expose the crimes of the Jewish state, still feels some pride in its mere existence. I understand and sympathise with this and do not think we should be talking as if the one state option required the dismantling of the existing state prior to the construction of the new state, implying a moment when there would be no state. What it requires is the extension of the existing state to include the Palestinians as equal citizens, fully engaged in its administration.

Imposing their state was not the worst thing the Israelis did to the Palestinians in 1948 and 1967. Worse than that was to deprive them of the basic rights of citizenship within that state. But worse even than that was to expel them from the state - most obviously in the ethnic cleansing of 1948 but again, less obviously but perhaps as perniciously (perhaps more perniciously), through the 'peace process' of the 1990s.

The Palestinians have had a lot of experience of this matter of states. The refugees have known what it is to be without a state, without any form of citizenship, since 1948. But the non-refugee population in Gaza and the West Bank were living in the Egyptian and Jordanian states respectively. Then they were incorporated without rights into the Israeli state. The legal status of Gaza and the West Bank as 'occupied territories' only facilitated the Israeli denial of their rights. Bad as this was, they were still living in a stable, functioning, albeit largely hostile and tyrannous, state. With the 'peace process' they were thrown out of the state. Their position now resembles that of the refugees.

Of course in theory a new state was going to be constructed but it is difficult to imagine how anyone could seriously have thought the Jews would allow the creation of a real, independent Palestinian state right in the midst of Israel. It was - or should have been - obvious from the start that the new Palestinian state would be a Quisling state or it would not be. And it was also obvious that the Palestinians are far too spirited a people to allow a Quisling state to endure for any length of time. So the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not been allowed to establish a state - they are effectively living in no state and their condition is worse than it was when they were living under occupation. The attempt to establish a Palestinian state is now obviously futile. It would be better, even from the point of view of opportunities for political action (witness the first intifada, the finest moment of Palestinian resistance) if Israeli sovereignty could be restored.

I do not at all suggest - very far from it - that the Palestinians should recognise the existing Israeli state, still less that they should bow to the monstrous suggestion that it should be recognised as a Jewish state. The republicans who were active in the civil rights agitations of the 1960s did not recognise the Northern Ireland state even though they were making demands of it. It is quite possible to say 'We don't recognise you as a legitimate government but since you refuse to allow us to have a properly functioning, independent, democratic state of our own we hold you responsible - as the only possible functioning government in the area - for our welfare.' And should Israel annex the whole area again, this should certainly be condemned in principle but not without an awareness that it has its advantages. It should not be opposed to the limit since the limit - an all-out military confrontation - provides precisely the circumstances the Israeli government would need to expel the Palestinian population outright, as was done in 1948. Which is the only possible long term stable solution for those who are committed to the Jewish state.

At present the Palestinians are sitting on the windowsill, waiting to be pushed off into the void. They would be better off back in the living room even if they get kicked and abused by the master of the house (or, if you prefer, the person who has stolen the house from its rightful master).



I am not optimistic about the prospects for the new devolved government in Northern Ireland. My interest is in the real politics of a sovereign state and that is still what takes place in Westminster and the people of Northern Ireland are still excluded from it. After spending twenty years of my life trying to join the British Labour Party from a Belfast address I am inclined to the view that only in a united Ireland will we be able to participate in anything worthy of the name of democratic politics (the Labour Party does, incidentally, take members in Northern Ireland now but still won't allow them to engage in any meaningful political activity - not that it allows its members to engage in much of that in mainland Britain).

Nonetheless the remarkable skill and patience in the face of great provocation shown by Sinn Fein gives some hope that the devolved government will not be as destructive and destabilising as my understanding of the situation suggests it ought to be. This is the main justification for its existence - to act as an outlet for the high spirits of a Sinn Fein at one with a people who at last feel at home in a state (the British state) which for years had been alien to them and treated them with contempt. That process - the reconciliation of the Catholic community to the existing state - happened by accident in spite of the deliberate intentions of nearly all the concerned political parties. Is it too much to hope that something of a similar nature might happen if it was pursued as a conscious, deliberate political project in Israel/Palestine?