The recent critically-acclaimed film Hunger brought home powerfully to many of us the brutality of the regime that faced republican hunger-strikers in Northern Irish prisons back in 1981. Fast forward a generation: who in the early 1980s would have thought that Northern Ireland would now (in 2009) be at peace?
I was a witness to one small part of the earliest stages of that real-life drama, the drama of the Northern Irish peace process.
Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, first rose to prominence as a result of the hunger-strikes recently dramatized in Hunger. He was elected an MP in 1983, but refused to take his seat in the House of Commons, because he did not accept the legitimacy of British rule over Northern Ireland. In 1984, he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by ‘ultra-loyalists’. In 1987, while I was in my last year studying at Oxford, he was invited by my friend Simon Stevens, then President of the Oxford Union, to speak in a major debate over ‘terrorism’.
The invitation was extremely controversial. Adams had only recently been allowed onto British soil at all, being considered persona non grata by Thatcher’s government. This was to be his first major speech in Britain as an MP and Sinn Fein’s Leader. Many did not want the visit to go ahead.
I helped Simon work on ensuring the visit could successfully happen after all. I vividly recall several phone calls discussing the arrangements, during which we heard various clicking noises on the phone – phone-tapping was a less sophisticated operation, in those days…
Simon had to go through a great deal more, to get things straightened out. He was taken to secret meetings with Sinn Fein officials in safe locations; so fearful were they for the safety of their leader after what had happened to him a few years before.
Before the Oxford Union debate, I met Gerry Adams, and noticed the way he walked, still affected by the bullet lodged in his body. At dinner, I sat beside one of his bodyguards, a man from a background so different from my own, that, by the end of the meal, I felt I could start to understand why someone might take as hard-line a position on the possible use of violence – as a means of resisting what they saw as an occupation – as he and Adams did.
The debate was a little landmark, an early public moment in the slow journey towards negotiations and then, after a decade, peace.
Why rehearse this history? Because my mind is on the terrible conflict in Palestine / Israel. Ireland was colonially occupied by British people, much as Palestine was colonially occupied last century by Jewish (now Israeli) people – therein lies the root of the trouble(s). Decades of violence however seem hopefully to have come to an end in Northern Ireland; not so in Palestine / Israel. Might one dare to hope that, if we fast forward a generation, there could be peace there, too?
But first, there must be a real peace process. That means, for starters, that we all have to be willing to talk to Hamas, the democratically-elected government of Palestine. The Israelis say they will not speak with Hamas until Hamas recognises Israel. But why should Hamas recognise Israel, when Israel occupies Palestine and will not recognise Palestine as a state?
To overcome this mad impasse, it is necessary to talk. If there is ever to be a ‘Good Friday Agreement’ in Israel / Palestine, then the US, UK, EU and Israel must be prepared to talk with Hamas. After all, if our government is willing to parler with Israel, which has just killed a thousand Palestinians, then should it not be prepared to parler with Hamas, too? Let’s hope that Obama sees sense on this and agrees to open up a dialogue with Hamas.
Hamas are allegedly ‘terrorists’, Israel allegedly not. But: were not the IRA terrorists? Hamas are the elected government of Palestine. After Adams and some of his colleagues were elected, we talked with them. And we talked even with the IRA, who were never elected by anyone.
If there is to be peace in the Middle East, there needs to be enough hunger for it that one is prepared to parler with people who one doesn’t much like. Even with people who kill civilians. As Israel has cruelly killed many hundreds of civilians, in Gaza, in the last month. The dozens of police officers it has killed: civilians. The people sheltering in schools and basements that it has killed: civilians. The hundreds of young children it has killed: civilians…