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Lessons from Lebanon: make hay while the sun shines

ARINS article written by Professor Michael Kerr

Northern Ireland and Lebanon are deeply divided societies, kindred spirits which share a common set of characteristics that have at different times acted as catalysts for protracted ethnic conflict, elite bargains and peaceful coexistence between rival communities. Their experiences vary wildly in the post-Cold War era, yet there are valuable lessons to be learned from the failure of state building in one for the prospects of a shared future in the other.

Lebanon is a small mountainous Mediterranean country which gained its independence during the Second World War under the French mandate. Preserving old traditions of elite bargaining, its dominant Christian and Muslim elites established a power sharing system of government which, despite the tough neighbourhood it was born into, endures today. At the time, this bargain was premised on maintaining Lebanon’s neutrality in regional Arab politics. That meant setting aside Maronite Christian separatist and Sunni Arab unionist aspirations. The 1943 National Pact, as it became known, functioned well enough until the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) established its headquarters in Lebanon after it was expelled from Jordan in 1970. The PLO’s presence sucked Lebanon ever deeper into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aggravating existing political and socio-economic tensions between its different communities. In 1975 the pact collapsed, and civil war broke out, a conflict which lasted fifteen years and left an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people dead. Occupied by Israel and Syria, with rival militias laying waste and laying claim to different parts of the state, Lebanon’s traditional elites tried to salvage the pact by accepting the 1989 Ta’if Accords—a Saudi-US brokered agreement which charged Syria with restoring Lebanon’s national institutions. Northern Ireland also experienced the collapse of what were newly established power-sharing institutions in the mid-1970s. The British Government was making its first attempt to end direct rule from Westminster by marrying the forces of constitutional nationalism and unionism in opposition to rival groups who were pursuing their objectives through violence or a mixture of politics and the threat of violence. This experiment in mandatory coalition failed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a refined consociational agreement finally put an end to violent conflict in Northern Ireland. This time power-sharing was not employed simply as a means of ending British direct rule or furthering Irish unity. An imaginative and inclusive intergovernmental framework was designed to reconcile the two traditions. If the (1988-1991) Soviet demise provided the context for an international agreement to end Lebanon’s civil war, it enabled British and Irish governments to negotiate a comprehensive constitutional settlement, with constructive US support, to regulate political violence in Northern Ireland.

Hyper-sensitive to shifts in international relations, the success of peace accords in Lebanon and Northern Ireland is predicated on the commitment of their guarantors to ensure that they are implemented, policed and nurtured. With American balancing, the Ta’if Agreement aimed to modernise and liberalise Lebanon’s old power-sharing formula, facilitate the future withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian occupying forces, and initiate the reconstruction of a shattered state with petrodollars. Iraq’s decision to invade its oil rich neighbour put paid to this agenda in 1990. Syria’s decision to provide Arab cover to the Western coalition that liberated Kuwait saw it rewarded with petrodollars and the freedom to govern Lebanon without American micromanaging. It is true that Syrian hegemony (1990-2005) brought a degree of peace and stability to this war-torn country, but the loss of sovereignty, the dereliction of the Ta’if reforms, and the politicisation of Lebanon’s civil war militias prevented intercommunal reconciliation.

Bashar al-Asad became president of Syria after his father’s death in 2000, and it was not long before he found himself on the wrong side of US President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’. The 2003 US led invasion of Iraq, made possible by 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks, represented a hammer blow to the Middle East state system. Lacking his father’s authority and experience, Bashar al-Asad lost control of Lebanon in 2005. The assassination of its charismatic pro-Western Sunni prime minister, Rafic Hariri, divided the country into rival coalitions. Led by pro-Iranian Islamist party Hizballah, the 8 March Alliance viewed Lebanon as the frontline state in a perennial struggle against the US and its regional proxy Israel. Supported by the Christian and Muslim parties which had driven the Syrians out in response to Hariri’s murder, the 14 March Alliance sought to bind Lebanon to the Sunni Arab regional order being championed by Saudi Arabia. Hizballah won the first bout in this contest, surviving Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Iran was the primary beneficiary of the subsequent failure of US state building in the region. Since 2011, it has used Hizballah to prevent Asad from losing the war for Syria and protecting Lebanon’s borders from Islamists and Zionists. Baited by Hamas and Israel over the destruction of Gaza that was made possible by the kibbutz massacres of 7 October 2023, there is no question of Hizballah’s readiness to take the hit for Iran in a wider regional conflict at a time of its choosing. Lebanon, therefore, remains in limbo.

During the same period, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Provisional IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, dominated Northern Ireland’s political institutions. Both parties lost the conflict over Northern Ireland on their own terms. But having won the peace, they eventually came together and accepted it. By 2006, emotive issues thrown up by the Belfast Agreement such as police reform, prisoner releases, and decommissioning had been largely resolved and the electoral defeat of moderate unionist and nationalist rivals the previous year heralded the DUP-SF marriage of convenience. With no ideological skin in the game of working towards a non-sectarian shared future, and after making self-serving amendments to the Belfast Agreement’s internal mechanisms at St Andrews (2006), they shared power on a transactional basis between 2007-17. The St Andrews agreement allowed them to agree to disagree agreeably and, for the most part, they worked Stormont’s institutions to their mutual benefit. Consequently, the regional legislative assembly served its first full term since 1965-69. Stable Anglo-Irish relations provided the canopy under which the wounds of the decades of terrorism and political violence began to heal in what was the European Union’s least strategically important flashpoint. Irish society modernised, secularised, and in some respects, became more multicultural. Compared with the long-suffering Lebanese, the Irish had never had it so good, that is until 2016 when the Conservative Government lost a referendum over the UK’s continued membership of the E.U.

One of the many alarming aspects of the crisis that Brexit provoked in Northern Ireland’s peace process, and for questions of constitutional change more broadly in the context of a future border poll on a united Ireland, is that despite having had over fifty years to get comfortable with the idea of political coexistence, and adjust to the sort of constitutional engineering that can make it possible, Brexit illustrated just how fragile the culture of power-sharing between the two traditions on this island actually is. In contrast to Lebanon’s traditional elites, many of whom were desperate to take advantage of the chance offered by the end of the Cold war to return to the status quo ante bellum—power-sharing arrangements based on the concept of ‘no victor-no vanquished’—too many parties in Northern Ireland were content enough to let its institutions fail when it served their short-term interests.

Despite its anti-EU instincts, Brexit was a remarkable success for Sinn Féin. It appears to offer republicans a shortcut to a united Ireland, one that does not entail all the long-term heavy lifting of making Northern Ireland work. Despite DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s devolutionist instincts, Brexit was an unmitigated disaster for his party, serving up just the sort of betrayal by a Westminster government that Ulster unionists have lived in fear of since partition. One outcome is that the DUP appears to have lost the nerve to confidently project power alongside Sinn Féin. Instead, its leaders are hedging their bets and consolidating their vote share, unprepared to take political risks to determine the unionist community’s long-term future.

Fifty years ago, not long before Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing executive took office, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath apparently told Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner that power-sharing with Irish nationalists was the price that his party must pay for maintaining the union. Faced with an IRA insurgency and an Irish Government incapable of advancing any significant political, cultural or societal change to facilitate peaceful coexistence north of the border, very few of Faulkner’s senior colleagues invested political capital in the venture. The public were more sanguine about the coalition government’s prospects however, and Faulkner’s loyalist opponents were forced to resort to unconstitutional action to bring it down. Twenty-five years later, another unionist leader succeeded where Faulkner had failed. David Trimble convinced enough of his senior colleagues that power-sharing with nationalists was the only way that his community could secure its long-term future within the UK.

Devolved government at Stormont was restored, but over the last twenty-five years Stormont’s institutions have suffered numerous suspensions, most recently, the DUP boycott over Northern Ireland’s post Brexit trading relationship with the rest of the UK. Since February 2022, Donaldson has been trying to find a way back through talks with the British Government over the Windsor Framework. Presumably, he has been making the same point to party colleagues that Heath made to Faulkner not long after the start of the troubles.

By shifting the economic border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland to the middle of the Irish Sea, Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson arguably did more damage to the union than three decades of IRA violence. Sympathy for Donaldson’s predicament is in short supply, however. By succumbing to English nationalist arguments about the restoration of British sovereignty from the EU and convincing themselves that a ‘hard Brexit’ would put the spine back into the border between the two parts of Ireland, the DUP was hoist by its own petard. More than that, on both sides of the political divide at Westminster, it is not hard to detect a sneaking regard for Johnson’s duplicity. Having nudged the unionist community firmly towards a united Ireland without altering Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK, Johnson went considerably further in addressing the Irish question than any of his contemporary predecessors. Johnson’s ‘hard Brexit’ shook the Belfast Agreement’s foundations, and it is the Conservative Government rather than the DUP that is primarily responsible for the attendant collapse in public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions.

If Irish nationalists win a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future due to the failure of these institutions, it will provide the weakest basis imaginable for a shared future between the peoples of this island, for power-sharing is the price that they must pay for reunification—its failure in the north will ultimately lead to its failure on an all-island basis.

If there is a lesson that all democratic traditions on the island of Ireland should take from Lebanon’s experience it is this. Through recurring bouts of civil war, its deeply ethnicised religious communities forged a syncretistic national identity that binds each to the other—for better or for worse—yet regional turmoil, or the ever-present threat of regional turmoil, has robbed them of any prospect of peaceful coexistence and national reconciliation. Its peoples have never had it so good. They have never enjoyed the political good will, the economic sponsorship, or the security guarantees that the Irish take for granted.

Certainly the same cannot be said of the peoples of Northern Ireland, or indeed the peoples of Ireland as a whole. Despite the relative tranquillity of the state system to which Northern Ireland comprises a peripheral part and the benevolence displayed towards it by the actors within it, its deeply ethnicised communities remain unreconciled towards one another. Lebanon is a nation without a state, Ireland is a state without a nation.

Brexit disrupted the tripartite alliance of British, Irish and American governments that acted as midwife to Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions. There is no doubt about that. Post-Brexit, the ease with which these institutions have been cast aside by Sinn Fein and the DUP, the absence of an opposition that is capable of filling a political vacuum at Stormont or a civil society with the gravitas to persuade the DUP and SF to reconsider their zero-sum calculations, in tandem with the relative disinterest of the electorate on both sides of the border offer sobering reminders that much work remains to be done before the democratic traditions on this island can fully address the legacy of the conflict and determine what a shared future on an all-Ireland basis must entail.

Michael Kerr is Professor of Conflict Studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London