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Splitting the differences

Opinion: The dilemma Northern Ireland shares with Palestine, Kosovo and other divided societies.

A Palestinian man stands near the controversial Israeli barrier in al-Ram in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem March 11, 2009. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

BOSTON — The murder of two British soldiers and a policeman in Antrim and Armagh, after more than a decade of peace in Northern Ireland, sent a chill down the spines of Ireland and Great Britain. The Good Friday agreement, signed 11 years ago, was supposed to end “The Troubles,” as those lost years of violence were called.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who put so much time into negotiating the Good Friday agreement, is now embarked on trying to settle an even more intractable and violent problem, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He will use some of the skills he honed in bringing the Irish together.

Although no two such disputes are the same, there are similarities. The most difficult to resolve come when two peoples inhabit the same land, but are divided by either race or religion. Disagreements, such as that between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, usually end one of three ways: partition, power-sharing, or one side taking over from the other.

In the early years of the last century, it looked as if there might be civil war in Ireland between the majority Catholic population and the Protestant north. In 1920, the British tried partition: Protestant Northern Ireland was split off from the mostly Catholic south to remain with Britain. But when the Irish Free State emerged it refused to recognize the partition as permanent.

Partition might have eventually avoided strife had there not been a sizable Catholic population within the new northern province. When Catholics in the north came to feel like a persecuted minority, many of them in effect said to their Protestant neighbors: We don’t want to be a minority in your country, so you come and be a minority in ours. Thus began the armed effort to wrest the province away from Britain in order join it with the Irish Republic, while the Protestant majority sought to stay British.

After years of fruitless violence both sides saw that neither could win outright. So rather than re-partition the province, the Good Friday accord established power sharing, to which the Irish Republican Army agreed, but which IRA splinter groups now seek to de-rail.