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Put The Shamrock in American Diplomacy

How Irish history may provide clues for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflictHow Irish history may provide clues for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

When Michael Collins, Ireland’s revolutionary hero, arrived at Dublin Castle to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, a British officer chided him: “You’re seven minutes late, Mr.Collins.”

“We’ve been waiting for 700 years,” Collins shot back, “you can have your seven minutes.”

To ponder those bitter centuries—the Irish struggle to survive grinding poverty and famine and to preserve its culture and faith against a hostile Anglo-Protestant regime—is to empathize with peoples everywhere struggling for freedom and justice. To study the pivotal chapter in Irish story, the revolt sparked by the Easter Rising” of 1916, is to widen our perspectives on America’s diplomacy, as I discovered during the Vietnam years.

By the late 1960s, I had finished my doctoral dissertation dealing with Ireland’s struggle for freedom and had studied enough history to conclude that the Vietnam War, billed as a war against Soviet communism, was really a nationalist struggle for freedom. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was never the puppet of China or Russia but a Vietnamese nationalist—the foremost rebel in a century of struggle against French colonialists, Japanese invaders, and finally American occupiers after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Irish nationalism was on the cutting edge of the third-world revolutionary movements exploding after World War II. And the United States, two centuries removed from her own revolution, became the prime counter-revolutionary power in a revolutionary world. Today, the Irish struggle can still provide valuable insights for America’s diplomatic problems, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by comparing the Irish and the Palestinians. Both peoples suffered terribly under British policies; both lost lands and independence to alien peoples—Irish Catholicsto Scotch Protestants, Arab Muslims to European Jews; both resorted to terrorism to free themselves from foreign domination.

By 1916, the Irish people had endured three centuries of repression under British imperialists and Protestants imported from Scotland to keep the Irish at bay: the best lands and jobs transferred to the Protestant minority, religious persecution, poverty, famine, and a “Protestant Ascendency” backed by powerful allies in the British Parliament. Eventually, British leaders changed course to improve the lives of Catholics, but at every turn they were confronted by Protestant resistance, with the Brits winning some and losing some.

In the late 19th century, they lost when two Home Rule bills for Ireland were introduced in the Parliament, only to be shot down by a coalition of British conservatives and Irish Protestants concentrated in Ireland’s northern counties within Ulster Province. In 1912, a third bill, slated to be activated in 1914, was put in cold storage when World War I broke out. By this time, however, militant movements like Sinn Fein—hungry for Ireland’s independence and aroused by Ulstermen pledged to take control in Ulster when when home rule took place—were primed for radical steps.

On Easter Monday, 1916, centuries of repression and foreign domination came to a boil with the Easter Rising, a desperate, quasi-suicidal mission seizing Dublin’s General Post Office, from which the rebels hung a banner proclaiming the “right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.” Under heavy artillery fire, ammunition and food running short, the rebels surrendered, leading to the execution of 15 ringleaders the following month.

In that charged atmosphere, Michael Collins prepared for a brutal campaign launched in early 1919. Endowed with energy, organizational ability, courage, and charisma, as biographer Tim Pat Coogan described him, Collins emerged as the pioneer in “modern guerilla warfare, the first…urban terrorist.” Even Mao Tse-tung studied his strategies: guerilla warfare, ambushes, targeted assassinations. Collins’ supporters were ordinary Irish people who fed and sheltered his soldiers, ran messages and guns, and provided financial support. It was was dirty, nasty business, beyond normal “just war” principles. But they were “fighting a far stronger enemy by the only means at their disposal,” Coogan writes.

When London was ready to deal, Collins took the lead in promoting the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It was an agonizing choice for his delegation; the pact granted considerable freedom, but was burdened with unsavory conditions, especially the partition separating six northern counties to provide home rule for Ulster Protestants. But with memories of “our young lads” hanging from lamposts and the prospect of winning what Ireland “wanted these 700 years,” the delegation signed on. “I may have signed my actual death-warrant,” Collins groaned.

As he feared, the half-baked treaty turned allies into enemies, plunging the new “Irish Free State” into a brutal civil war, between the pro-treaty Free Staters led by Collins and the Republican faction headed by Eamon de Valera, who survived the Easter Rising due to his American citizenship. During the struggle Collins was killed in an ambush and de Valera landed back in Kilmainham Jail, where he’d been held in 1916. The Free Staters, in control of government resources and backed with British troops and weapons, prevailed in May 1923.

The fledgling Free State inherited a ravaged land with an impoverished, bitterly divided people and shorn of its more prosperous northern counties. In the following decades, however, Irish leaders developed an efficient government, improved marketing of their agricultural products, and laid the foundations for an industrial economy hitherto reserved for Ulster. In the 1930s, Ireland reached a milestone toward uniting the country when de Valera, coming in from the cold, was elected president of the national legislature, the Dail Eireann, and Douglas Hyde, a Protestant, was elected president of the country.

The best was yet to come for the Republic of Ireland: the economic miracle in the 1990s which transformed one of the poorest countries in Western Europe into a thriving, knowledge-driven economy, second-highest in GDP per capita in the European Union. Through strategies like investments in education and low taxes luring foreign investments, the “Celtic Tiger” reversed centuries of emigration, with Irishmen now returning home for work.

But north of the border, things degenerated. Under Ulster Protestants, driven by outmoded religious hatreds and fearful of a large Catholic minority outbreeding them, the Unionist Party maintained power by gerrymandering Catholic voting districts, bolstered by allies in the British Parliament. The result was an impoverished Catholic proletariat shortchanged in public housing and education, and barred substantially from jobs in government, skilled unions, and businesses. As late as the 1960s, “No Catholics Need Apply” signs flourished in business windows.

In that decade, a vigorous civil rights movement emerged, demanding justice for Catholics, setting off a chain reaction: Protestant mobs attacked civil rights activists and provoked riots in Catholic neighborhoods; Ulster policemen sometimes joined the mobs; ultimately the rebirth of Sinn Fein in 1969 launched another bloody chapter of terrorism and mayhem lasting to the turn of the century.

Such was the legacy of the British government when they catered to a hardened Protestant minority by partitioning Ireland in 1921. But even as Britain was contending with Irish rebels, London was seeding future disasters. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised Jewish peoples a homeland in the Holy Land. In effect, London opened the gates for a torrential influx of Jewish peoples pouring into lands heavily populated by Palestinian Arabs.

A secular democratic state with equal rights for all might have worked under an Arab-Jewish state. But the Jewish people, battered and bullied for 2,000 years and traumatized by Hitler’s genocidal Holocaust, wanted nothing less than a Jewish state. A Jewish state, however, required a partition of Palestinian lands to create a Jewish majority. The state established by the United Nations in 1948 contained a 40 percent Arab minority, and the Srabs had higher birth rates. It was a recipe for endless violence, leading to four Arab wars and decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, telegraphed in April 1948 when renegade Jewish terrorists massacred the villagers of Deir Yassin, triggering a massive exodus of terrified Arabs from Jewish-controlled areas. “Deir Yassin marked the beginning of the Palestinian problem that was to haunt the Middle East for decades to come,” write historian John G. Stoessinger.

Thereafter, the Holy Land became a gladiators’ arena racked by an endless spiral of violence, with Arab countries and Palestinian terrorists attacking Israelis, and Israelis retaliating against Palestinians, and a vast Palestinian refugee population bearing the brunt of the carnage. In the process, the United States emerged as the great power supporting Israel—an alliance which fueled much of the anti-Americanism in the Arab-Muslim world.

By the 1980s a peace process based on a two-state solution might have succeeded had it not been for a new stage of Israeli expansions. After the 1967 war, Israel occupied the last remnant of land left to Palestinians and began building Jewish settlements there. The result, for today, is a privileged Jewish minority 300,000 strong surrounded by three million angry Palestinians barred from Jewish-only roads, and subject to confiscations of land and homes to make way for expanding settlements.

In many respects, the Irish and Palestinian peoples endured similar disasters—the loss and partition of lands, conflicts intensified by sectarian hostilities, privileged minorities dominating majorities, the arbitrary killings, torture, and double standards inevitable in long occupations. But in one category we detect a startling contrast: The strongest voices for justice for the Irish were Irish Americans. The strongest voices for Palestinians have been Israelis and Jewish Americans.

Were the settlements designed to protect Israel or to fulfill dreams of a Greater Israel, pre-empting the two-state solution? Listen to Henry Siegman, a Middle East expert and former head of the American Jewish Congress, writing in The Nation: After the 1967 war, Ariel Sharon showed Siegman plans “pointing out strategic locations of present and future settlements which ‘would rule out a future Palestinian state.’” At a conference in 1979 focused on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, former defense minister Moshe Dayan declared: “‘The question is not, What is the solution? But how do we live without a solution.’”

In short, Siegman concluded, “Israel has lived without a solution as a matter of deliberate policy…discrediting the notion that Palestinian moderaton is the path to statehood.” Sooner or later, he argues, Washington will have to realize that America’s “‘special relationship’ is sustaining a colonial enterprise.” Moreover, American diplomats must deal with Hamas, which, he observed, “has moved closer to a vision of peace” while Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains “vehemently opposed…to a genuine viable Palestinian state…”

That’s a tough road to follow for American politicians, who are prone to demonizing terrorists and fearful of crossing a powerful pro-Israel lobby.

But that’s the path the British followed: After posting Collins as the most wanted man in the Empire, he emerged as the top player in forging the peace process. The Irish story, I submit, is a primer for navigating the crosscurrents in foreign policy problems: that terrorists can become peacemakers, enemies can become allies, allies can become Achilles’ heels; and that peace, based on empathy and justice for the enemy, is far more valuable than the peace of the cemetery achieved through military victory.

President John Kennedy captured the idea in his motto before entering the White House: “Never corner an opponent…See things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil…nothing is so self-blinding.”

J. Edward Cuddy is a professor of history at Canisius College.

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