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WALKING THE SAME ROPE

It’s hard to guess which group would be angrier about being compared to the other, the Israeli Jews or Northern Irish Protestants. The Islamist gunmen of Hamas would be outraged to hear themselves equated to the Catholic gunmen of the Irish Republican Army, and vice versa. Yet the comparison is there to be made: the political and demographic situation of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is very like that of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. And in Northern Ireland, the Catholics already sense that they are going to win.

There was political chaos in Northern Ireland on October 21. The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, had flown into Belfast to preside over a ceremony to mark the symbolic end of the long guerilla insurgency by the IRA. It’s over five years since the Good Friday Agreement ended the violence, but there is still need of “closure”. Only it didn’t quite happen.

There has been some unravelling of the peace process recently, with the Protestants doubting that the IRA would ever really abandon its guns and the IRA leadership determined to do nothing that would signal military defeat or surrender. After a generation of direct rule from London, democracy returned to Northern Ireland but the elected assembly in which Catholics and Protestants uneasily shared power was suspended last year after the IRA was caught spying on government officials. So this occasion was meant to bind up all the wounds.

Beyond use

The event that would provide a symbolic end to the war was to be the third and largest “decommissioning” of weapons by the IRA. The day began well, with Blair proclaiming a new election to the Northern Irish assembly on November 28 and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political front), vowing to “bring an end to conflict on our island, including physical force republicanism”.

But then John de Chastelain, head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, said that he had seen some more IRA weapons “put beyond use” — but he wasn’t allowed to say when, or where, or how many weapons, or what proportion they were of the IRA’s remaining arsenal. The IRA was willing to give up some arms in the cause of peace, but it couldn’t bear to let anybody see it publicly renounce its weapons after a century of romanticizing the gunman as the ultimate Irish Catholic hero.

In the face of this act of childishness, David Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, responded with one of his own and walked out. So everyone is in disarray, and even the November elections and the restoration of democracy in Northern Ireland are now uncertain. Yet the province will not slide back into war. Why'

People strong

Because the 2001 census revealed that Protestants, who were 63 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population 40 years ago, are now barely a majority: 53 per cent of the province’s 1.5 million people, and dropping fast. Catholics have risen from 35 to 44 per cent, and will probably have a clear majority by 2010: there were 173,000 Catholic children in Northern Ireland’s schools last year, compared to only 144,000 Protestants. So the IRA no longer needs violence to end British rule; Sinn Fein can do it through electoral politics.

Now compare this situation with Israel and the occupied territories, where today there are 5.5 million Israeli Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians. Only one million of these Palestinians live in Israel proper, which is guaranteed a permanent Jewish majority. But in “Greater Israel”, Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews as early as 2010. So you can have a Jewish, democratic Israel within the country’s pre-1967 borders, or a Greater Israel that is either Jewish, or democratic, but not both.

Northern Ireland was carved out of the new Irish republic in 1925, whereas Israel was carved out of Palestine in 1947. The former plunged into a bloody 25-year guerilla war in 1969, whereas the intifada in Greater Israel only started three years ago. But both countries are travelling the same road, and both face the same choices sooner or later.

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