Catholics and Palestinians

22 October 2003

For ‘Catholics’, Read’Palestinians’

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard to guess which group would be angrier about being compared to the other, 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, too 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 last Tuesday (21 October). British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern had both flown into Belfast to preside over a ceremony that would mark the symbolic end of the long guerilla insurgency by the IRA in the British province. It’s over five years since the Good Friday Agreement ended all the shooting and bombing, but everyone is still in much need of ‘closure’. Only it didn’t quite happen.

There has been some unravelling of the peace process recently, with 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 Catholic and Protestant parties uncomfortably 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.

The event that would provide a symbolic end to the war was to be the third and largest act of ‘decommissioning’ of weapons by the IRA,. The day began well, with Tony Blair proclaiming a new election to the Northern Irish assembly on 28 November 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 Canadian General 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 just couldn’t bear to let anybody see it publicly renounce its weapons after a century of romanticising the gunman as the ultimate Irish Catholic hero.

In the face of that act of childishness, David Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, responded with one of his own and walked out, leaving Tony Blair to say helplessly that he wouldn’t have walked if he could only be told how many weapons the IRA had decommissioned. So everyone is in disarray, and even the November election and the restoration of democratic rule in Northern Ireland are now uncertain. Yet there is no chance that the province will slide back into war. Why?

Because the 2001 census revealed that Protestants, who were 63 percent of Northern Ireland’s population forty years ago, are now barely a majority: 53 percent of the province’s 1.5 million people and dropping fast. Catholics have risen from 35 to 44 percent, 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.

The British government will not resist that outcome, if it is achieved legitimately, because the British people lost interest in hanging onto the province long ago: according to a Guardian/ICM poll two years ago, 46 percent of Britons would prefer to see Northern Ireland merged with the Irish Republic, compared to only 21 percent who want to keep it in Britain. So of course Sinn Fein wants the assembly restored: nothing seems to stand between it and victory except time.

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 those Palestinians live in Israel proper, which is therefore guaranteed a permanent Jewish majority despite a much higher Palestinian birth-rate — 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.

That was the original British mistake at the partition of Ireland in 1922. In being greedy about the borders of the new, Protestant Northern Ireland, it included hundreds of thousands of Catholics with a much higher birth-rate. So greater Northern Ireland could not forever be both Protestant and democratic; eventually it would have to choose. In fact, since the British government calls the shots and will not condone permanent suppression of Catholic rights, the choice will make itself. It’s just a matter of time.

Northern Ireland is twenty to thirty years ahead of Israel: carved out of the new Irish republic in 1925, whereas Israel was carved out of Palestine in 1947; 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 choice sooner or later.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The British…time”; and “That was…time”)