Where is Ulster's Yitzhak Rabin?

Unlike South Africa and Palestine, Northern Ireland lacks leaders who dare to push for peace
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The Independent Online
Three gaps in the cloud, three moments of gun-silence, have dominated Nineties diplomacy: the South African breakthrough; the Middle East peace process, and the Northern Irish peace process. Together, they sum up many of our hopes for a better, post-tribal world.

The age of political heroism is not over, and as British and Irish leaders return from paying tribute to an assassinated peacemaker in Israel, it is worth dwelling on the lessons of these three attempts at reconciliation.

They share striking similarities. In each case, the conflict was caused by the settlement, or migration, of one ''advanced'' people into a less developed one. The arrivals of the modern Jewish settlers, the Boer colonists, and the Scottish Protestant planters in Ulster came hundreds of years apart, but they were all violent disembarkations of the modern among agrarian, traditional societies, whose consequences heavily mark the world today.

Each of the incoming groups saw themselves, and in many cases still see themselves, as a people chosen by God, spiritually as well as morally and technologically superior to the surrounding Arabs, Africans or Irish. These farming peoples were seen, by contrast, as vicious, superstitious, untrustworthy. They responded by turning, eventually, to rebellion.

Yet in no case have the rebels ''won". Change also came from inside the three mind-laagers. None proved impermeable to modern liberalism and rationalism. The pariah-status of apartheid South Africa became intolerable for white voters. Israel, dependent on US aid, has produced, alongside its fundamentalists, a generation thirsty for peace. In Northern Ireland, another economy dependent on outside aid, something similar has happened; Ulster is not immune to the benign bacillus of relativism.

The other examples remind us that the path to peace is a dangerous and violent one. Necklacing, shootings, punishment beatings, the splintering off of extremists and, yes, assassinations, may all happen on the way - yet without closing the way. Peacemaking is disorienting and uncomfortable. Murderers are released. Former terrorists swagger and preen.

More widely, moving from paranoid, divided societies to calm democracies is a ragged process. The high levels of violent crime in Johannesburg, the militancy throughout Palestine and the gangsterism of Belfast are reminders that civic order and democratic restraint cannot be declared by treaty-makers but must be slowly learned by whole societies. They drop slow on troubled times.

These are lessons about how change happens; they are an antidote to panic. But ominously for Northern Ireland, there are differences too. For in the Middle East and South Africa, the drive towards peace needed great men. Individuals mattered - at this point in the story, we shut Hegel and reach for the Carlyle.

South Africa would now be a bloodsoaked arena for race war, and Palestine would be in continued revolt, had not leaders arisen on both sides who were hardliners, who then changed their minds. To accomplish change they needed to be trusted by their own people - big people, revered people. Mandela had this trust because of his years in confinement; de Klerk had been a hard man of apartheid himself; Rabin was the young Haganah fighter and the military leader of the Six-Day War; Arafat was Palestine's icon through years of exile and terror.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has a number of competing leaders on each side. Were there an historic handshake of the White House lawn variety, which Titans would be involved? The truth is that neither Northern nationalism nor Unionism has thrown up a single peacemaker with the internal authority or status of the South Africans or Middle-Easterners.

It may be painful to say so, but Sinn Fein is nearer. Gerry Adams, as a suspected young Provo commander and then an IRA apologist, has the first qualification; he is trusted by most of his people. That he is so hated by the other people merely makes the point; if he wasn't hated, he wouldn't be worth trying to negotiate with. Adams, though, is still only part of the jumble of pan-nationalism; when he speaks strategically, it is as half of that oracular hybrid known as Hume-Adams.

On the Unionist side, the division of the main parties, and the split between parliamentarians and local militants has, likewise, prevented any single strong leader emerging. It is possible that David Trimble may come through as the voice that Ulster Unionism both trusts and can unite around; his energy and ability to play different audiences is promising. A man being courted by President Clinton, who can yet set the crowds roaring at Portadown could yet be one half of the handshake.

He wouldn't like the implication. Not yet, anyway. But the more Trimble advances, the better for the peace process. Unionism needs its de Klerk or Rabin. That Unionist politicians are so concerned about the possibility of assassination doesn't make that any easier to say today, but it remains true. One of the problems of peace processes is that politicians, as distinct from their followers, are put at more risk. They have enemies behind them as well as in front.

Given that Northern Ireland lacks the two trusted and strong leaders that the Middle East and South African processes had, it is still utterly dependent on outside help - though here ''outside'' is a relative term, since it includes both London and Dublin. The worrying thing is that today it is the governments as well as the local parties who are frustrated and mutually uncomprehending.

The British government, having offered a new set of "twin-track" talks designed to put the issue of the decommissioning of arms into abeyance while progress is made on other questions, is irritated that neither the Irish government nor Sinn Fein is moving. They, in their turn, see the British as threatening the peace process by refusing to countenance direct all-party talks until weapons are handed over by the IRA.

Various chess-moves involving prisoners, remission, the withdrawal of another British regiment and so on have occurred as both sides try to demonstrate their flexibility before President Clinton arrives to visit both the South and the North of Ireland later this month. But neither John Major nor John Bruton in Dublin has been prepared to put new pressure on the Unionists or Sinn Fein over the central question of weapons.

If they will not, they need to ask themselves whether it isn't time to pass the initiative back to the local parties. For there is one final lesson from the other laager-communities, and it is this. Such a weight of history, such hatred bred in the bone, cannot be broken except by leaders who are prepared, again and again, to dare, to push things until they are regarded as traitors by their own hardest-line supporters. It is this acceleration that Northern Ireland, caught between different powers and parties, has lacked over the past months.

No leader who has stood before that solitary coffin on Mount Herzl can doubt the dangers of peacemaking, of keeping the pressure on when reason says, relax. But Rabin died a hero in a world which is, just maybe, losing its love of thugs. He knew what he was doing. We need a man like him.

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