Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Sunday, 29 January 2006

NI's flawed process offers lesson

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

When he heard I was based in Northern Ireland, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi gave me a look I can only describe as forlorn.

Palestinian boys wave Hamas flags in Gaza
Hamas recorded a resounding victory in the Palestinian elections

"When it comes to Sinn Fein," he said, "the Americans recognise a difference between them and the IRA.

"But when it comes to Hamas, they refuse to recognise any difference between us and the al-Qassam brigade. Why is that?"

Our discussion took place in the spring of 1998 during a short reporting trip I made to the Gaza strip.

There were a variety of answers to Mr Rantissi's question, not least the complete absence of any pro-Hamas lobby in the US Congress.

But what was probably more interesting was the fact that Hamas's number two was even thinking in these terms.

Abdel Aziz Rantissi isn't around any more to comment on Hamas's adoption of a twin-track "suicide bomb and ballot box" strategy.

He was killed in an Israeli air strike back in the spring of 2004.

A previous attack had claimed the life of his leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Grassroots

But, in the wake of Hamas's resounding victory in the Palestinian elections, I wondered what Rantissi would have made of some of the comparisons and contrasts being drawn between his movement's journey and the evolution of Irish republicanism.

Both movements built their base through assiduous grassroots activity.

Both movements overwhelmed more moderate opponents who have arguably grown complacent after enjoying a long period of political dominance.

Will both movements find that political success brings responsibilities and the need to abandon some of their long held beliefs?

The journey of Hamas may pose some similar challenges to that thrown up by the journey of Sinn Fein
Mark Devenport

That said, the contrasts are just as striking as any comparisons.

We have already noted the lack of US domestic political sympathy for a Clintonian policy of constructive engagement with Hamas.

Moreover, it is manifestly unfair to draw any parallels between the SDLP and Fatah.

Last time I checked John Hume had not presided over an armed militia of former terrorists, nor did he lead a corrupt authority.

Nevertheless the journey of Hamas may pose some similar challenges to that thrown up by the journey of Sinn Fein.

How should the international community balance its condemnation of violence and its insistence that Hamas must change its commitment to the destruction of Israel with the pragmatic desire to reward a greater political emphasis with a degree of recognition?

Mitchell Reiss believes Hamas is not a partner for peace
Mitchell Reiss believes Hamas is not a partner for peace

The former Northern Ireland talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell - who also played a role as a would be peace broker in the Middle East - told BBC Radio 5 Live that the election results provided Hamas with an opportunity to prove that it could change.

President Bush's Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, told Inside Politics that Hamas is "currently not a partner for peace".

But he added that "what is clear is that if they change then we are willing to talk to them".

It seems unlikely that the US will take the lead in this process, but - in a role reversal from the days of Bill Clinton annoying John Major over Sinn Fein - the European Union seems better placed to proffer an olive branch.

So far as Northern Ireland is concerned the USA has regularly played the role of well intentioned "honest broker".

But in other areas of conflict - not least the possibility of opening up serious negotiations with non-Islamist Sunni insurgents in Iraq - the US would be well advised to look to Northern Ireland.

Local politics may appear in the doldrums but when it comes to Palestine, Sri Lanka or Iraq our flawed but nevertheless relatively successful process of conflict transformation still has a few lessons to provide.



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