The journey from peace table to battlefield seems so swift

I hope that the wavering men of Ulster Unionism are watching the agony of the Middle East
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I have always been wary of the political comparison game. Back in South Africa in the bad old days of apartheid, I was endlessly told by visiting liberals that the Afrikaners and the Ulster Protestants and the Israelis were essentially the same kind of people (ie irredeemably imprisoned by a siege mentality). What my visiting friends liked to imagine was an international family of the narrow-minded and revanchist, people of the circled wagons. Isn't it all the same? they would say.

I have always been wary of the political comparison game. Back in South Africa in the bad old days of apartheid, I was endlessly told by visiting liberals that the Afrikaners and the Ulster Protestants and the Israelis were essentially the same kind of people (ie irredeemably imprisoned by a siege mentality). What my visiting friends liked to imagine was an international family of the narrow-minded and revanchist, people of the circled wagons. Isn't it all the same? they would say.

The argument that politics and history were infinitely more subtle usually fell on deaf ears. Yes there were similarities, but the differences in the internal and external pressures facing the three groups were vastly different. And to hobble everybody who felt themselves threatened by a more numerous "other" with the reputation of being bitter-enders always struck me as intellectually shallow. Let me add "dangerously naive" to that.

And now let me swiftly ignore my own advice. For as I watched the collapse of the Middle East peace process (well actually the memorial service, the real process has been dead for years), my thoughts were turning to Ireland. I think it was watching the jocular scenes at Camp David that made me start to tremble for the Ulster peace process. There were Ehud and Yasser playfully pushing and shoving each other at the door of President Bill's cabin. They might have been deadlocked in negotiations but they still looked like peacemakers. But within months Ehud has dispatched helicopter gunships to blast Yasser's compounds. And Yasser's supporters are lynching Israeli soldiers in the streets.

How seemingly swift the journey from the peace table to the battlefield. Well actually not that swift. The truth is that the appearances of peace have survived in the Middle East for far longer than anyone might reasonably have expected. They were wildly at variance with the reality. This is not the sudden explosion of violence that some have liked to pretend. The visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount was a lit match dropped on the driest tinder.

To deliver peace, political leaders need to be in control of their constituencies. Neither Mr Arafat or Mr Barak are so lucky. Locked into a fearful cycle of vengeance, dictated to by the public mood, they are no longer leaders but followers. To survive, they must play the warlord; language is wrenched further away from moderation until it is indistinguishable from the dialectic of the bitter-enders. And, with horrible logic, the battle escalates, and the compromises that were possible a week ago are now seen as betrayals.

It's wrong to say that nobody benefits from this. The apostles of illogic, who believe peace is possible without compromise, are rejoicing at the conflict. It will swell the ranks of their supporters immeasurably. In the way of fanatics everywhere they will not see the true lesson - that a peace process is more than the sustained absence of violence, it is about addressing real grievances. The hardliners will emerge from this with their sense of victimhood soundly reinforced, worse they will dictate the future for everybody.

So what has this to do with Ireland? I am hoping that the wavering men of Ulster Unionism are watching the agony of the Middle East this weekend. Look long and hard because it might stop you making the biggest mistake of the peace process. Yes, there is a real cause for comparison here.

David Trimble is a politician who has bravely tried to stake out a middle ground position for Unionism. He has articulated a new Unionism that recognises the reality of sharing an island - not just a province - with Irish Catholics. That is not the same as believing in the inevitability of a United Ireland, more an acknowledgement that unionists cannot exist as an isolated entity within Ireland or Europe. British support for the unionist position is contingent on the continued acceptance of powersharing and the so called "Irish dimension". That will not change if Mr Trimble is overthrown by the hardliners.

Trimble's courage in attempting to pull Unionism away from being a philosophy built on the word "NO" has not been fully appreciated by nationalists. By abandoning sectarian politics in favour of a bigger picture, he has divorced himself from a substantial section of his own party, the men who believe that a shared future with Catholics is possible without compromise. They live in cloud-cuckoo land, but they are gaining ground and may soon succeed in dumping their leader.

A lot of this has to do with a perception that too much ground has already been given - a cry familiar to anyone who knows the Middle East or South Africa. Because a peace process must be based on the proposition that there are no winners, or that everybody is a winner, any move to address the grievances of either side inevitably sparks a round of recriminations. When this happens again and again - over prisoner releases, IRA decommissioning, the Patten report - the temperature rises to a point where the astonishing fact of peace is forgotten. The men of the middle ground become so preoccupied with current rows that they forget what has been achieved so far, and the hardliners bellow "I told you so" as they pine for the certainties of the old siege.

Nothing will change the minds of the hardliners, and yet I believe they are a minority of Mr Trimble's party. The critical middle ground, which is in danger of being seduced by the arguments of Jeffrey Donaldson and friends, needs to wake up fast. Where do you really think you can go if the Good Friday Agreement collapses? Do you suppose there are more amenable republican leaders than Gerry Adams out there, or that you will find a leader more sure-footed and courageous than David Trimble?

If it all does collapse, it would be wise for politicians on this side of the water to stay clear of the blame game. Peter Mandelson has been admirably resolute in his dealings with both sides, and understands better than most of his predecessors the art of what is possible. This peace process isn't the property of Labour. It began with the Tories, in fact it started way back in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. History, fairness and the interests of Northern Ireland demand a bipartisan approach.

I don't believe there will be a sudden upsurge in violence if the Executive collapses, but there will be a period of dangerous drift in which the hardliners on the republican side will expand, finding a receptive audience for the proposition that the Protestants have no intention of making peace with nationalists. The dreamland of an Ireland united by force will be resurrected and we could be back to the old deadly game. As the crisis in Israel and the Occupied Territories has amply shown, political drift leads sooner or later to an explosion.

I started out as a pessimist on Ulster. Every year when the BBC broadcasts its correspondents' "lookahead" for the year, I would debate with my colleague Denis Murray. He consistently argued that a deal in Ulster was possible, I repeatedly said the polarisation was too great. So much for predictions. The Good Friday Agreement and the referendum turned me into an optimist. I am still hopeful, in spite of the threat to David Trimble. I only hope that Belfast is watching Gaza.

 

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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