Irish Lessons

In New York they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a parade, green beer and a lot of shamrocks. In this town, we do things differently. Washington “celebrates” St. Patrick’s Day by entertaining visits from Northern Irish politicians, who troop into town and make the rounds: State Department, Congress, White House, think tanks and, finally, the St. Patrick’s Day party at the Irish Embassy. The ritual played itself out again last week, albeit with a difference from years past: Almost nobody noticed.

And that, as one of the traditional participants pointed out to me, is a good thing. David Trimble, the leader of the largest Northern Irish Protestant party, said he’d mostly been asked polite questions about the “long term” and the views of the next generation. His conclusion: If no one is much bothered anymore by the ins and outs of Irish politics, that is largely because the armed conflict is, for all practical purposes, over.

It isn’t really, of course. Read the British or the Irish press and you’ll see references to the “battered” peace process or the “flagging” peace process, stories of Irish Republican Army beatings and kneecappings, tales of hopelessly complex machinations among Belfast politicians. But Trimble agrees that there have nevertheless been some fundamental changes over the past decade. Some IRA members, while still claiming they are fighting a war for Irish independence, in fact spend much of their time smuggling cigarettes and dealing drugs. Others have morphed into democratic politicians, and now compete in Northern Irish elections. It’s unsavory for someone like Trimble to deal with them, and cigarette smuggling and drug dealing don’t contribute much to the greater social good either. Still, this is preferable to the frequent bloody attacks on innocent people that once characterized the IRA’s “war” on Britain.

Nor is the IRA unique: Moving to another part of the world, the same phenomenon was on display last weekend in El Salvador. There, two parties that represented in effect the two sides of that country’s old civil war clashed in a bitter, unfriendly but ultimately nonviolent election. The loser, a former FMLN Marxist guerrilla leader who recently congratulated Fidel Castro for imprisoning dissidents, was ungracious, refusing to congratulate the winner of his own country’s election. Nevertheless, he didn’t take to the forests, go underground or set off bombs. That, too, is progress.

Not every terrorist conflict is susceptible to being turned, over time, into a democratic political competition. Al Qaeda supporters who declare “you love life, we love death” when they take credit for bombing attacks are never going to contest elections. In any case there isn’t exactly a forum in which Islamic fundamentalists, hiding in the tribal regions of Pakistan, can compete peacefully against Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, London and Paris, the forces they say they want to destroy.

At this point, it isn’t clear whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will ever be sublimated into politics either. But a “two-state solution” might emerge, either through the (now unlikely) path of negotiation, or a (far more likely) unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank. Assuming that Palestine becomes a viable state at all, democratic competition might be possible there. Hamas, the Palestinian movement that is part charity, part terrorist organization, might be converted into a political party — like the FMLN or the IRA.

I use the word “might” with strong emphasis here, because at the moment none of this seems remotely possible. Still, the hope that it will be possible is, in the end, the only criterion by which to judge last weekend’s assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader, as well as Israel’s threat to kill more Hamas leaders: Do these actions make Hamas’s transformation more likely? Or do they push that possibility even further into the distant future? I haven’t yet seen evidence that leads to any conclusion but the latter.

Over the next few days, there will be much discussion about the moral rights and wrongs of murdering the Hamas leader. To many Israelis, it must have seemed like justice to kill a man whose followers killed so many Israelis. But in the endgame of the Middle East conflict, if there ever is one, justice isn’t going to be the only cause served. There is no justice in the fact that IRA terrorists are busy smuggling cigarettes either. Nevertheless, it’s good that they do — good, at least, for those who might otherwise be dying from bus bombs. I’d rather Hamas were doing the same.

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