Alex Massie

Ulster Lessons

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I've a piece up at the New Republic today, looking at how George Mitchell's experience in Northern Ireland may inform his approach to his role as Barack Obama's middle eastern envoy. Readers of long-standing will know that I take a rather more jaundiced view of the "peace process" than most and that, accordingly, am less enthused (but still hopeful!) by Mitchell's appointment than most commentators.

Nonetheless, Mitchell appreciated that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to forge a peace agreement absent the cooperation of the men of violence. In his view, "To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers. ... Bringing them in slowed the pace of diplomacy - but increased the odds that a power-sharing agreement, once reached, would have widespread support and staying power."

This is both true and not entirely true. And it cuts to the heart of the problem with the Northern Irish "peace process": all three governments involved (London, Dublin, Washington) and Mitchell himself came to believe that any agreement, no matter how flawed, was preferable to no agreement.

That had the consequence of giving Sinn Fein the better end of the bargain. To Mitchell, the most important objective was keeping the Republicans on board. If replicated in the Middle East, this would be to pacify Hamas at all costs.

At the heart of the dilemma in Northern Ireland was what came to be known as "constructive ambiguity": that is, the IRA signed on to an agreement that seemed to pledge them to disarm, but precious little pressure was put upon them to do so for fear that the IRA might wreck the agreement and return to war. The failure to hold Sinn Fein and the IRA to their commitments would eventually render the entire peace process hollow.

Whole thing here.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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