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Those drawing parallels between the North and Israel-Gaza are missing the point

Britain could look to the North for a template of how to manage protests and divided communities but it probably won’t

Northern Ireland has been exporting its peace-process expertise to Israel and Palestine for over 20 years – hubris that already seemed pathetic during Stormont’s collapse, and now appears tragic.

Last month Jeffrey Donaldson said Israel and Hamas need “a proper process, a proper dialogue” with “lessons that can be drawn from our experience in Northern Ireland”.

The DUP leader has previously chaired the board of a private consultancy, the Causeway Initiative, owned by his brother. It has worked with groups in Palestine and Lebanon, bringing them to Stormont in happier times to marvel at its success. Sinn Féin and SDLP figures have joined Donaldson for Causeway projects. Other private and government-owned consultancies sell Northern Ireland’s example around the world, much of it focused on reform of policing and other public institutions.

The premise of this industry may be presumptuous, but it is not unreasonable. The world desperately wants a peace-building success story, now more than ever. This has become another timely opportunity the DUP is squandering with its Stormont boycott.


Northern Ireland’s credibility is further undermined by the perception of its population taking sides, republicans for Palestine and loyalists for Israel – a story that features occasionally in the international media. In reality the field is left to angry partisans because most people keep their counsel. They sense the complexity of the argument and how grotesque it can be to take sides. As a person from Northern Ireland, your special insight into Israel and Palestine is how foolish most foreigners sound making confident pronouncements on Northern Ireland.

The clearest lessons worth sharing are with the rest of the UK as it grapples with intercommunal tensions that seem to have left many in shock.

As a person from Northern Ireland, your special insight into Israel and Palestine is how foolish most foreigners sound making confident pronouncements

Prof Ian Acheson, a commentator and senior adviser to the Home Office on tackling extremism, has written that Northern Ireland’s Parades Commission could be a template for policing demonstrations while protecting the right to protest. Prof Acheson is originally from Northern Ireland; it would rarely occur to anyone from England to look to the regulation of Orange parades for an issue on their own doorstep. That is despite the commission helping to solve a problem considered hopeless and overwhelming for two centuries – and accomplishing this without the Orange Order’s consent.

Beyond institutional solutions, Northern Ireland can offer a more general perspective.

There were 60,000 people at last weekend’s pro-Palestinian demonstration in London: a large protest, doubtless indicative of wider anger, yet still a trivial fraction of Greater London’s population, which includes 1.4 million Muslims from diverse backgrounds.

If Britain is acquiring a sectarian divide it is not on a scale that warrants the panic of the past week, when normally reasonable people discussed mass deportations and the inevitability of civil conflict. A lesson from Northern Ireland is to be careful drawing inferences from street politics, or from the loudest voices on the streets. That applies to riots, even more so to largely peaceful demonstrations.

There has been aggressive and hateful behaviour at protests in Britain, with open support for terrorism and proscribed organisations, raising questions about why police did not intervene. Much of the British public and press are frustrated by what they see as appeasement of the mob and double standards in law enforcement.

Some knowledge of Northern Ireland would provide context. The PSNI has transformed public order policing over the past decade by keeping its distance, even during riots, while collecting evidence for subsequent arrests. This denies confrontation to troublemakers and increases the prospect of prosecutions, both of which have a demonstrably deterrent effect.

Concern is escalating in Britain about the baleful influence of “hate preachers” and other self-appointed community representatives, and of the naivety of public authorities who have engaged with these malevolent actors, often as their main point of contact with Muslim communities.

This scenario and its cast of characters is familiar to Northern Ireland – it comes painfully close to a definition of the peace process. Perhaps both parts of the UK have a lesson to teach each other about the importance of supporting moderate voices and sidelining extremists. They could at least learn to recognise common dangers from recent history.

Showing Northern Ireland to Britain as a warning obviously has less appeal than selling it to the world as a model. It is a poor business prospect when the British government can learn from its own mistakes for free. Nevertheless, there has been interest in the parallels and crossover work, particularly by academia, again dating back almost 20 years. Amusingly, unintentionally, the DUP has left a door ajar to giving this more prominence and resources.

In the New Decade, New Approach deal, which restored devolution three years ago, the DUP extracted a promise from London to “support increased cultural connections and understanding of the diversity of identity and culture within the UK”.