Ultimately whether we want to live together: Comparing Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
14 June 2017

A seminar comparing Northern Ireland with other divided societies took place at The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast.

Those in attendance included a number of Queen’s University professors and staff, as well as representatives of the Alliance Party (Stephen Farry) and Green Party (Clare Bailey).

The first speaker was Sammy Smooha, a renowned Israeli Professor of Sociology from the University of Haifa. Professor Smooha is an expert in comparative ethnic relations. He has researched and written extensively on the internal conflicts of Israel and Israeli society in comparative perspective.

His presentation, entitled “Partition: Comparing Israel/Palestine with Ireland/Northern Ireland”, covered the aspects that were relevant to both the conflict in Northern Ireland and the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine.

The three common issues covered were colonialism, partition and binationalism. However, the caveat was stressed later that the two societies have more differences than similarities.

Professor Smooha did not view Jewish settlement as colonial, as the Jewish people have historical ties to the land that are recognised by the international community. In contrast, British settlement of Ireland was described as a classic case of colonialism. He described why binationalism worked in Northern Ireland and why it will not work in Israel/Palestine. It ultimately came down to whether two communities want to live together and if the cultures of the groups are compatible — this was the case in Northern Ireland but unfortunately is not the case in Israel/Palestine, Smooha argued.

The question of unification versus partition as a solution to conflict was also evaluated in both cases. Partition of Palestine/Israel and a united Ireland were put forward as the best solutions. After the talk, Professor Smooha answered questions and addressed criticisms of his ideas.

Two more presentations followed. Professor Emeritus of Human Geography, James Anderson, gave a presentation on the topic of “ethnocracy” — one particular ethnic group being in charge. Again this idea was used as a lens to analyse a number of different nations, including Northern Ireland. Key issues addressed included the question of when does democracy turn into unfair dominance by a majority group. Professor Anderson’s research and expertise focuses on the relationship between territory and politics.

Finally, Professor Emeritus Adrian Guelke gave a short talk relating to the similarities and differences between South Africa and Northern Ireland. A comparison of the aftermaths of the two conflicts was one of the topics examined. Professor Guelke specialises in the politics of societies with serious divisions with particular interest towards South Africa and Northern Ireland.

Following the presentations those attending were given the opportunity for open discussion. There was much lively yet amicable debate. Much of the talk revolved around Brexit and how it would affect the future of Northern Ireland particularly in regards to trade, the border and people’s attitudes towards unification with the Republic of Ireland. Brexit was universally considered a “game changer”, but opinions on the surrounding issues varied.

Named after the former U.S special envoy to Northern Ireland, The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice was officially launched in 2016. The Institute’s website states that the organisation was set up with the intent of being “a flagship for interdisciplinary research in areas of major societal challenge”. It offers postgraduate courses covering peacebuilding, international security and politics.

Recently the department concluded its “Spring Festival of Conflict Transformation”, which has been running for the last five years. The programme hosts a mixture of politics, art, literature, film and documentary in formats ranging from debate and panel discussion to public lecture, conversation and workshop.


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