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An Irish Lesson for Israel

by Garry Jacobs

 The IRA’s abandonment of violence provides a key to the resolution of Palestine, Kashmir and other intractable religious and ethnic-based conflicts that we cannot afford to overlook. The economic elevation of the South over the past 15 years has coincided with the progressive attenuation of violence in the North. Frustrated social energies that formerly engendered violence are now absorbed in rising economically. The link between these two apparently unrelated phenomena – prosperity in the South and peace in the North – offers essential lessons for the resolution of other regional conflicts.

The humiliation of the Irish during centuries of British domination, a domination that was as much social and cultural as it was political and military, is at the core of both their historic political problems and recent economic success. While the republic gained its freedom in 1922, it continued to live till very recently under the stigma of inherent inferiority as Europe’s ‘poor man’ and ‘basket case’. That stigma has been the source of both political violence in the North and economic aspiration in the South. Negatively it aggravated frustration in Belfast. Positively it generated the impetus for the South’s dramatic economic ascent and the rising expectations of its citizens. As historian Paul Johnson observed in relation to the rise of America, talents rise from the lowest strata of society during periods of transition in which raw energy of personality is more important than skill, character or culture.

Technology played a key role in the development and pacification of the region. Technology applies mental energy to organize material processes. In doing so, it releases enormous productive energies. Like electricity and the automobile in earlier decades, today the computer is playing that role in the transformation of Ireland. Low labour costs and tax rates coupled with high educational standards, the amiable Irish character and the lyrical charm of Irish-spoken English made Ireland a natural destination for IT assembly, back office processing and call centers to flourish.

Massive emigration from Ireland has given America more than 40 million citizens of Irish descent. The impact of September 11th on American tolerance for violence has reduced support for violence back home. Emigration also exerted incessant demographic pressure on the Protestant-dominated North, to which Irish Catholics traditionally moved as the most accessible destination for better employment. Added to the higher birth rate among Catholics in the North, that immigration hastened the progress of the Catholic population toward becoming the majority population in the North, thereby adding fuel to communal tensions. During the last 15 years rapid job-growth has made the South an attractive destination for emigrants from the North. Since 2000, the inflow from UK was nearly three times the outflow. This has had profound impact on the self-image of a once downtrodden people.

The rise of the Celtic Tiger coincides with the taming of the lions in Belfast. Whether consciously as a policy decision or unconsciously as a result of rising expectations and social elevation, the Irish have laid a course that offers valuable lessons for others. Economic development and economic security can be an effective remedy for military and political conflicts. Indeed, much of what we take to be irreconciliable religious and ethnic hatred thrives on a substratum of poverty and is aggravated by the absence of economic opportunities for those who seek through education to escape it.

Expectations rise along with education and where those expectations are frustrated, violence often ensures. The hundreds of thousands of educated unemployed in Kashmir and Palestine still constitute a fertile basin for terrorist recruitment. The near doubling of the employment opportunities in Ireland since 1988 has been a powerful touchstone for peace. A determined commitment and concerted program to economically raise the lower strata in these regions can quickly eliminate support for violence. Economic development forms the surest foundation and most powerful incentive for permanent peace.


Executive Director, International Center for Peace & Development, Napa, California and Editor of Uncommon Opportunities, the Report of the International Commission on Peace & Food.


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