As the world scrambled to respond to Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, the first reaction came from an unlikely source: Ireland. On the morning of June 5, the MV Rachel Corrie, which had set sail from the east coast of Ireland in an attempt to breach the Gaza blockade, was intercepted by Israeli forces. The vessel’s Irish passengers included Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
The ill-tempered diplomatic spat between the Irish and Israeli governments that accompanied the Rachel Corrie’s journey to Gaza is just the latest episode in the countries’ long history of antagonistic relations. Tensions recently escalated again with the Irish expulsion of an Israeli diplomat amid Irish anger over Israel’s alleged use of eight forged Irish passports in the recent murder of a Hamas official in Dubai.
The Palestinian issue has long occupied a place in the Irish consciousness far greater than geographic, economic, or political considerations appear to merit. Perceived parallels with the Irish national experience, however, have inspired an emotional connection with Palestine that has inspired Irish activism in the region up to the present day.
At first, in the 1920s and 1930s, Irish sympathies lay squarely with the Zionists and drew heavily on the presumed parallels between historic Irish and Jewish suffering, as well as the shared traumatic experience of large-scale migration in the 19th century.
Drawing a parallel with their own history of occupation, the Irish also championed the Zionist struggle for self-determination against the British. A correspondent to The Bell, a leading Irish magazine, raged over current events in Mandate Palestine in March 1945: "Never let it be forgotten that the Irish people … have experienced all that the Jewish people in Palestine are suffering from the trained ‘thugs’ ‘gunning tarzans’ and British ‘terrorists’ that the Mandatory power have imposed upon the country."
But Irish nationalist perceptions toward Israel soon shifted. The country’s own anti-British rebellion led to a traumatic civil war that left six northern counties of the island under the British crown. Once the Zionist movement accepted the partition of Palestine, the Irish began to draw unflattering parallels between Israeli policies and their own divided existence. To many, the Jewish state now looked less like a besieged religious-national community struggling valiantly for its natural rights and more like a colony illegitimately established by British force of arms and intent on imposing itself on an indigenous population.
The renowned Irish novelist Sean O’Faolain, writing in November 1947 as the United Nations debated a partition plan for Mandate Palestine, expressed this sentiment when he rejected the comparison between the Irish and Zionist struggles: "if we could imagine that Ireland was being transformed by Britain into a national home for the Jews, I can hardly doubt which side you would be found."
Not even the successful Zionist military struggle against the British in the late 1940s did much to alter the view that Israel was "a little loyal Jewish Ulster," in the words of Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem. Like Ulster, the northern province of Ireland under British control that was seen as a bulwark against Irish nationalism, Israel appeared designed to hold back the tide of Arab nationalism.
The "Vatican factor," as the writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien liked to call the Catholic Church’s influence over Irish social and political life, also affected Irish perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October 1948, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical, In Multiplicibus Curis, endorsing an "international character" to Jerusalem and its vicinity. From that time, the Irish government adopted the Vatican’s concern for the status of Jerusalem’s holy places and mirrored its call for international supervision of the city.
What to do about Palestine was the subject of regular discussions between high-ranking Irish and Vatican officials. Over dinner in Dublin in 1961, Con Cremin, a senior official in the Irish foreign ministry, advised his dinner guest, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Arthur Lourie, that the issue of the holy places "was a relevant factor" affecting Ireland’s ties to Israel. "[I]t is a mistake to write off the Vatican position," Cremin continued, "by reference to what might to the normal person seem to be realism."
As a result, Ireland only extended de jure recognition to Israel in 1963, 15 years after its declaration of independence. By the late 1960s, Ireland was increasingly preoccupied with the fate of the Palestinian Arab refugees, whose numbers had swelled following the Six Day War in June 1967. Speaking in 1969 in the Dail, the lower house of the Irish parliament, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken described the settlement of this problem as the "main and most pressing objective" of Ireland’s Middle East policy. By the time Aiken left office later that year, Irish policy was set in stone: There could be no peace without the repatriation of the maximum possible number of Palestinian refugees and full compensation, not merely resettlement, for the remainder.
After Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, successive governments in Dublin have taken the lead in championing the Palestinian cause within Europe. In February 1980, Ireland was the first EU member to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was also the last to allow Israel to open a residential embassy, in December 1993.
Israel has responded to this cold shoulder with anger and bewilderment. Speaking on Irish radio in 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin described Irish policy as tantamount to acceptance of the PLO’s "right to destroy the Jewish state."
Clashes between Irish U.N. peacekeeping troops in Lebanon and the Israeli army and its proxy Christian militias between 1978 and 2000 made relations worse. Forty-five Irish soldiers died while serving the United Nations in Lebanon, and the Irish government blamed Israel directly or indirectly for at least 15 of those deaths, including the April 1980 kidnapping and execution of privates Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne by the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia allied with Israel.
One Irish politician evoked the general anger when he admitted that he had lost much of his previous sympathy when Israel "commenced to use our volunteer soldiers as target practice."
Throughout the Oslo Accords era and the post-Oslo era, Irish governments continued to provide the Palestinian cause with valuable, if not unlimited, support. Speaking before the Foreign Policy Association in New York City in September 2000, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern explained that the "moral dimension" of international affairs was the "first and foremost" reason for Irish involvement.
As citizens of a small, neutral country on the margins of Europe, the Irish public’s primary interest in foreign affairs relates to international law, human rights, anti-imperialism, and a proud history of engagement with the United Nations. This worldview, combined with a healthy appetite for the freedom-fighter slogans and anti-colonial language that left previous generations weak at the knees, explains the ongoing attachment to the Palestinian "underdogs."
The Irish fixation with Palestine continued even after the optimism of the Oslo era was long past. In June 2003, Brian Cowen, then Ireland’s foreign minister, visited Yasir Arafat during the height of the Second Intifada — and even after Israel refused to host foreign dignitaries who met the Palestinian leader while visiting the region.
Cowen’s visit came at a time when terror was at an all-time high and when the U.S. government, a majority of Israelis, and significant sectors of the Palestinian population had lost faith in Arafat’s capacity to lead the Palestinians to statehood. But Cowen spoke for many in Ireland when he described Arafat as "the symbol of the hope of self-determination of the Palestinian people" and praised him for his "outstanding work … tenacity, and persistence."
Irish NGOs continue to work actively to translate public support for Palestinian rights into action. Ireland can claim one of the most organized and effective chapters of the international Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In 2004, it submitted a petition to the government signed by 12,000 members of the public and 52 members of parliament, members of the European Parliament, senators, and independent politicians calling for a boycott of Israel.
Since then, it has undertaken a number of high-profile campaigns to isolate and delegitimize Israel, including an attempt to get Aer Lingus, an airline partially owned by the government, to cancel flights to the Holy Land. It has been ably supported by the Irish Anti-War Movement, an umbrella body for activist groups that organized a rowdy picket at the Israeli Embassy in Dublin during the flotilla crisis.
The Irish government, which is committed to following Europe’s agreed-upon Palestine policy and keen on expanding trade and research and development links with Israel’s high-tech sector, will never break ranks with its EU partners and endorse an economic, academic, or cultural boycott of Israel. But there is almost total unanimity across all political parties that Israel is to blame for the ongoing failure to find peace. Not even the partisan political climate that has existed since the economic meltdown of 2008 has dented consensus on this point.
Israel’s appointment of Lord David Trimble, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, as one of the foreign observers into the flotilla affair has little chance of shifting public opinion on this issue. Despite earning the admiration of many in the Irish nationalist community for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, he comes from a Unionist tradition, which calls for Northern Ireland to retain its political ties to Great Britain, which has always been viewed as pro-Israeli.
Many Unionists identify with Israel as an isolated community, surrounded by hostile forces and lacking international support. Their pro-Israeli sentiments also are a reaction to Irish Republican support for the Palestinian cause. In the 1980s, a mural in a nationalist area of Belfast depicted armed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and PLO members under the slogan: "IRA-PLO one struggle." Despite peace, these cleavages still run deep: In response to the Second Intifada, northern Protestant areas flew the Israeli flag, and Catholic areas raised the Palestinian national colors.
Up to the present day, Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, which has elected representatives in the Irish and British parliaments and shares power in Northern Ireland, has continued to be a virulent critic of Israel. In 2006, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the party’s international affairs and human rights spokesperson in the Dublin parliament, described Israel as "one of the most abhorrent and despicable regimes on the planet." This May, he was one of three Irish politicians prevented by authorities from leaving Cyprus to join the Gaza-bound flotilla.
The Irish tendency to view the outside world in terms of local obsessions is still with us. The powerful political narrative connecting Ireland to Israel and Palestine continues to inspire its people, and their government, to action. And in the eyes of many Irish, the "little Jewish Ulster" still sits at the heart of the many problems plaguing the Middle East.
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