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Jackie Goodall explains why there is a strong bond between the people of Ireland and the Palestinians. However, she also points out that there are different voices within Ireland that offer solid support for Israel.
Palestinians (archive) Photo Credit: Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash 90
Renewed calls from within the Irish government to formally recognize a Palestinian state have surfaced again over the past two weeks. Although other voices in Ireland claim that the call is partly to deflect from the current internal crisis besetting the Irish government, the “Palestinian cause” is never far from the surface of Irish political life.
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan stated last week that he is “actively keeping under consideration, on a continuous basis, the question of whether recognition by Ireland in the near future of a state of Palestine might be a helpful step in relation to the Middle East peace process.”
This should hardly come as a surprise. Ireland has a long and vocal history of supporting the Palestinians, drawing parallels with them as a people colonized for centuries under foreign occupation. The perception of the Palestinians as the proverbial underdog aroused in the Irish an emotional connection that started around the time the Zionist movement accepted the partition of Palestine and it continues to inspire pro-Palestinian Irish activism to the present day.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Irish sympathies lay firmly on the side of the Zionists, as the Irish drew parallels between historic Irish and Jewish suffering, remembering the painful experience of large-scale migration in the 19th century. However, perceptions soon changed when the Irish perceived the newly formed modern State of Israel to look more like an illegitimately established colony established by British armed forces imposing itself on an indigenous population.
The fact that Ireland was dominated at that time by the Catholic Church didn’t help matters. In October 1948, Pope Pius X11 issued an encyclical supporting an “international character” to Jerusalem. From that time on, the Irish government endorsed the Vatican’s call for international supervision of Jerusalem and its holy sites. By the late 1960s, the sectarian conflict known as “The Troubles” began, a painful reminder of Ireland’s struggle with British imperialism and with that, Ireland had turned its full attention to the plight of the Palestinian Arab refugees in its Middle East policy.
In February 1980, Ireland was the first EU member to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was also the last to welcome an Israeli Embassy to Dublin, in December 1993. The Irish fixation with Palestine continued unabated into the 21st century when, in 2003, Brian Cowen, then Ireland’s foreign minister, visited Yasir Arafat at a time when Palestinian terror was at an all-time high. Cowen went so far as to describe Arafat as “the symbol of the hope of self-determination of the Palestinian people” and praised him for his “outstanding work… tenacity, and persistence.”
The Irish political party Sinn Féin, though it has gained much respectability within Ireland since it distanced itself from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), is a virulent critic of Israel. In a letter to the Irish Times in August 2016, one senator thundered at the “ongoing cruel and vindictive nature of the Israeli occupation.” The mindset that Israel is an apartheid state and that the Israeli courts sentence Palestinian children to up to 20 years in prison “for the crime of throwing a stone at an occupying Israeli tank,” is pervasive throughout the party.
Then there is the problem of various NGOs that use Irish tax-payers money to indirectly fund anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel. Historically, these charities were non-partisan but in recent years, they have become politicized, always siding with the Palestinians, who they see as the oppressed. One such organization, Christian Aid, states on its website that it “works in close partnership with Irish Aid, the division of the Irish government’s Department of Foreign Affairs that supports international efforts to tackle poverty” and lists “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” among its beneficiaries.
Ireland also boasts one of the most effective chapters of the International Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Over the years, it has undertaken numerous high-profile campaigns to isolate and delegitimize Israel through boycotts. In 2010, the IPSC launched the Irish Artists’ Pledge to Boycott Israel and in 2016, successfully prevented the Israeli Embassy in Ireland from sponsoring travel expenses for Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht to attend a leading Irish literary festival. In the event, the demand for tickets for Liebrecht’s interview and reading was so high that the event was moved to a larger venue, where she was received by a very enthusiastic and appreciative Irish audience.
Israel has and continues to respond to this cold shoulder attitude with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. In 2015, there were reports in the Irish media of a misunderstanding when outgoing Israeli ambassador Boaz Modai claimed that Irish President Michael D. Higgins’s officials failed to organize a customary farewell meeting before he left Ireland. The President’s office claimed they had not received notice his term in Ireland had ended and hastily organized a last minute invitation. President Higgins subsequently wasted no time in welcoming the incoming ambassador Ze’ve Boker and provided an Escort of Honour consisting of a motorcycle detachment drawn from the 2nd Cavalry Squadron to the President’s official residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
There are, however, many people within Ireland who are solid supporters of Israel. Irish4Israel is one such grassroots organization headed up by Barry Williams. Its members work tirelessly to counteract the lies and hate, which includes setting up petitions, inviting speakers from Israel to visit and organizing trips to Israel for young Irish people. It currently has a Facebook following of 22,000 people. The newly formed Maynooth University Israel Society is Ireland’s only campus Israel Society. Its founder Alan Lyne was moved to do so after winning an essay writing competition on ‘What Israel Means to Me,’ which was sponsored by Irish4Israel.
In December 2014, Ireland passed a declarative resolution calling on the government to recognize Palestine and in June 2016, a resolution was submitted to expedite it. To date, Ireland hasn’t taken the definitive step.