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imperialism & war

History Lessons

In December 1921, the British government and the leaders of Catholic nationalist Ireland signed a treaty dividing the island. The southern 26 counties would become an effectively independent country; the northern six would remain within the British union.

Over the next six months, opinion in Ireland divided between those who wished to accept the treaty as the best possible deal and the more militant nationalists who wished to continue fighting Britain in hopes of gaining the remaining counties. The militants continued to attack British security forces - Britain put heavy pressure on the new Irish Free State - and in the early morning hours of June 28, 1922, the pro-Treaty forces launched an attack on military units of the anti-Treaty faction.

Thus began the Irish Civil War, the subject of any number of books, movies, photographsand bar-room songs. Over nine months, some 3,000 Irishmen would die in battle. Ultimately, the pro-Treaty forces won, and independent Ireland accepted the partition of the Protestant north from the Catholic south. And since 1923, the independent new Irish state has been a peaceful neighbor to Britain, a valued member of the Atlantic community, and (increasingly) a beneficiary of a thriving, free-market economy.

Why delve into this ancient history? It is this Irish story that contains the test for the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Making treaties with Israel is by no means the hardest part of his job. In fact, it is probably the very easiest. The hard will be making the treaty stick - by for example suppressing the radical local militias who will certainly impose it. The job ahead of Abbas, in other words, bears a remarkable resemblance to the duty history thrust upon Michael Collins and the Irish leaders of 1922: to crush the radical opposition, sign a treaty with Israel while they can, and then enforce compliance with the treaty even at the risk of war with former comrades.

Will Abbas do that, or its contemporary equivalent? For all the many technical details in the roadmap, really, that is the only one question that counts.


At the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, the British signatory, Lord Birkenhead (better known by his birth name, F.E. Smith) remarked, "I may have signed my political death warrant." Michael Collins replied, "I may have signed my actual death warrant." So he had: He was murdered by IRA gunmen in August 1922.

Many readers have written to point out that Mahmoud Abbas would risk the same fate if he were to make and honor a peace with Israel. So he would - and if he did, he would achieve yet another distinction: He would become the first Palestinian leader ever to risk his own life for his people's cause.