Irish republican bent-knee episode of 1922 suggests that P.A.’s weakness could have virulent consequences

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With its massive green, copper dome and neoclassical columns, the Four Courts is one of Dublin’s most distinctive landmarks. Situated on the quays by the River Liffey in the heart of the city, it is also Ireland’s most important legal building, housing the country’s Supreme Court, the High Court and the Dublin Circuit Court. 

Ninety years ago the Four Courts played a short, tragic and very symbolic part in the story of Ireland’s violent and tortured struggle for independence from Britain which left marks on the national psyche that are still visible to this day. Although the parallels are far from exact and there are countless differences between the two situations, Irish people will read the Palestine Papers leaked this week to Al Jazeera and The Guardian and know exactly the pain that many Palestinians must be feeling.

The Four Courts ‘moment’ that seared itself into the Irish soul in June 1922 became an emblem of weakness and subservience in the face of a bullying occupying power for a generation of Irish people and was the trigger for a bitter civil war from which the country has never fully recovered. From what can be gleaned of the Palestine Papers, it is arguable that the Palestinian ‘Four Courts’ moment has been underway for much longer than its Irish equivalent and may be much more traumatic and consequential, the bitterness left behind many times more virulent. 

The Irish ‘moment’ came at the end of a bloody, three year war between the IRA and the British. The Irish side had the goal of achieving a Republic and complete independence from Britain but when at the end of 1921 the two sides called a truce and sat down to talk, the outcome, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was much less than that. While the Irish would get their own parliament and government and the British Army would leave, the country would be partitioned and its elected representatives would have to swear allegiance to the British Crown. Ireland would remain in the orbit of the British Empire. The Republic was dead.

Ireland divided over the Treaty and so did the IRA. Anti-Treaty republicans occupied the strategically important Four Courts complex and after months of a stand off the British threatened the pro-Treaty government, led by Michael Collins: the Treaty would be torn up and Ireland re-occupied by British soldiers unless the rebels were evicted. On June 27th, 1922, using artillery pieces and shells donated by the British Army, Collins’ forces bombarded the Four Courts. After two days of shelling, sixty-five IRA dissidents lay dead, the Four Courts had been reduced to rubble and the Irish civil war was underway.

It was Collins’s willingness not only to carry out British orders in the face of threats but the fact that he used British weapons against his own countrymen and erstwhile comrades-in-arms which angered and embittered so many in Ireland. In the same way, many Palestinians will read the leaked papers, as well as US cables published by Wikileaks, and discover that before the Israeli incursion into Hamas-controlled Gaza at the end of 2008, Operation Cast Lead was ‘cleared’ with the Palestinian Authority, or that Saeb Erekat secretly offered Israel ‘the biggest Yerushalayim in history’ and feel exactly the same sense of outrage and betrayal. 

But this is where the differences between what happened in Ireland some 90 years ago and what we are learning this week from the Palestine Papers kicks in. And those differences could make the fallout many times more serious. 

When Michael Collins, in the words of his opponents, ‘bent the knee’ to the British, he could argue that he was doing it for sound tactical reasons. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was far from perfect but it offered a measure of independence denied to Ireland since the thirteenth century. The version of Home Rule contained in the agreement was also a platform which could be built upon. The Treaty was not the Irish Republic but it was at least a stepping stone towards one (and in 1948 Ireland finally declared herself a Republic). With time and the healing of wounds, Collins’ allies also argued, partition could be undone and Ireland re-united (that is still a work in progress).

On the other hand, Collins said, defying the British and refusing to fire on the Four Courts rebels could cost Ireland all she had gained and set back the cause of Irish independence for generations. Not only that but going back to war was not a viable option. The IRA had fought well and had inflicted heavy casualties on the British but the tide had already begun to turn against it. The British were now threatening a ‘terrible war’ if the Treaty was rejected and the people were weary of conflict. The IRA could fight on but it would get weaker and inevitably would face defeat.

Collins could make all those arguments but the Palestinian Authority’s leadership cannot. There is no equivalent between the Israelis and the PA of the Anglo-Irish Treaty for whose survival Saeb Erekat or any of his negotiator colleagues could justify their endorsement or acquiescence in Operation Cast Lead or the giving away of East Jerusalem, no agreement that could be the first stepping stone on the way to something grander – just a series of unconditional, one-sided concessions that the papers reveal were often met with near-contempt by the Israelis. 

Michael Collins also had another weapon in his armory. He could argue that he had been honest and straightforward with the Irish people, had told them all or most of what there was to know and had hidden nothing from them. Much of that claim stands up. The terms of the Treaty were published immediately after they were agreed, there was a parliamentary debate in Dublin shortly after that (which narrowly approved the deal) and much public debate on the issues. When the Four Courts was shelled, the background and circumstances were well known and the Irish people, even though badly divided, were well prepared for it. 

The Palestinian Authority negotiators and leaders can make no equivalent claim. All of their concessions and offers to the Israelis, their parallel acts of collaboration with the Americans and British were hidden away, kept secret not only from their own people but, it is now being said in some quarters, from their Arab allies as well. The weakness and deference implied in behaving this way are devastating, even if the charges prove not to be justified. But it doesn’t end there. If the Israelis had done a deal and the PA’s secret concessions were then made public, how else would the Palestinian leadership have persuaded their people to accept them except at the point of a gun? Had Collins behaved in such a way in 1922 the course of Irish history would almost certainly have been very different for his side in the civil war just as the consequences for the leaders of the Palestinian Authority could now be so much graver. 

The PA leadership are likely to be the major casualties from the Al Jazeera leaks but Israel too will lose, although there may be few in that country ready to recognize that. In the opening decades of the 20th century, the British were as arrogant an imperial power as could be found in any history book, yet even so they knew that their real long-term interests lay in doing a deal with people who they had condemned as bloodthirsty criminals just months before. While not prepared to grant full independence to the Irish, the British knew that ending the carnage and brutality in Ireland and removing the consequent stain on their reputation abroad justified conceding much more freedom to the Irish than had ever before been contemplated by a government in London.

Not so the Israelis. What screams out from these papers is an Israeli arrogance and stupidity that defies the English language to describe. Of the two, stupidity is the more unforgivable and likely to have the direst consequences. It is clear from the papers that the Israelis could have cut a deal with the PA at almost any stage in the last decade that almost certainly would have been overwhelmingly in their favor and at the same time, despite its faults, have buttressed the PA and even undermined Hamas. Yet Israel spurned each opportunity. The message to the non-PA Palestinians from that behaviour and from these papers is hard to avoid: political methods are a waste of time. Once again Israel’s behaviour threatens to legitimise the gun and the bomb. Michael Collins was lucky in his choice of enemy.

Ed Moloney blogs at the Broken Elbow.

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