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Ireland’s Criticism of Israel Has Made It an Outlier in the EU. What Lies Behind It?

In recent weeks, leaders from the European Union, the UK and the US have stood shoulder to shoulder with Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing support for Israel’s “right to defend itself”, a slogan that has wreaked horror on Gaza following Hamas’s horrific attack on Israeli civilians and security forces.

Ireland has been an outlier. While the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said that Israel has a right to defend itself, he added the following qualification: “but Israel doesn’t have the right to do wrong.” Early on in the bombardment of Gaza, he also said: “To me, it amounts to collective punishment.” At an EU level, the country has been pushing – along with Spain – for a humanitarian “ceasefire” to bring an end to the violence, rather than the option of a “pause”.

While no one in their right mind could justify Hamas’ murder of civilians on 7 October – and I have not heard a hint of this sentiment in Ireland – Ireland has a long history of supporting what is viewed as the cause of Palestinian freedom and peace in the region. As videos of Irish politicians advocating for Palestinians and criticising the Israeli government continue to go viral on social media, the question asked by those new to Ireland’s position is simple: why?

The brief answer is Ireland’s experience of colonialism, sectarian violence and peace. Yet that short answer hides complexities. Ireland’s solidarity with Palestinian people is not a “like for like” reflex (although it is sometimes expressed simply as such, particularly in Northern Ireland), nor merely a kind of political sentimentalism. It is articulated through government policy, protest and activism, and a historically informed sense of empathy for those whose lives are curtailed by occupation and violence. Successive Irish governments’ support for the peace process is also a reflection of the understanding that peace can be forged even in acute contexts of sectarian violence.

In 1980, Ireland was the first member of the European Union to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state. Irish politicians had significant meetings with Yasser Arafat in 1999 and 2003. In 2010, Ireland ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from Dublin when it was revealed forged Irish passports had been used by suspects in the assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. This was the same year an Irish ship attempting to transport humanitarian aid to Gaza during the blockade was halted by Israeli security forces. In 2017, the Palestinian flag was flown over Dublin City Hall to mark 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

In recent years, both houses of the Irish parliament have passed a motion calling for the recognition of the state of Palestine, although this remains in legislative limbo. It was, however, raised again by the minister for foreign affairs, Micheál Martin, around the UN summit in September, when he suggested that the Irish government was preparing to progress the bill. The 2018 occupied territories bill – yet to pass the final stages in parliament – would ban trade with and economic support for illegal settlements in occupied territories. There is some pro-Israel sentiment on the political right – a prominent example is former Fine Gael minister-turned-lobbyist Lucinda Creighton – but broadly there is consensus.

Because of our history, many people are drawn to support those they perceive as oppressed, with marginalised national identities, especially within the frameworks of imperialism and colonialism. This sense of kinship can express itself in daily cultural life – take the 2023 away kit of a popular Dublin football club, a partnership with a Palestinian non-profit sports organisation. There have also been multiple protests across Ireland calling for a ceasefire.

The Irish president, Michael D Higgins, who occasionally raises eyebrows for speaking out despite his independent role, was firm in his response to Israel’s actions. “To announce in advance that you will break international law and to do so on an innocent population,” he said to reporters while on a visit to Rome as the bombing of Gaza escalated, “it reduces all the code that was there from second world war on protection of civilians and it reduces it to tatters.” The president enjoys broad public support, and is seen to reflect the view of the people beyond party lines. When this statement drew the ire of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, there were calls from the public to expel the ambassador.

Recent events have also revealed emerging tensions between Ireland and the EU. Ursula von der Leyen’s strident expressions of support for Israel have jarred with Ireland – which still remains a militarily neutral country. Varadkar said some of her comments “lacked balance”, and that he told her as much. When the EU eventually called for “pauses” in the conflict, he said he was “satisfied with the language. It was always going to be difficult to come to a compromise that 27 countries with different perspectives could sign up to.”

Finally there is the question of how this plays with Sinn Féin, which is explicitly pro-Palestine and is widely predicted to become the largest party in government after the next general election. The party has previously expressed its support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. For all the talk of expressions of republicanism, nationalism and Irish unity within the party, the current Twitter/X profile of the leader of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, doesn’t feature an Irish flag. It does, however, feature a Palestinian one.

Israeli diplomats have long viewed Ireland as the least sympathetic nation in Europe to their cause. The past few weeks suggest that reputation isn’t changing soon. While that isn’t a cause for concern among the majority of the Irish public, an end to the bombardment of Gaza is.

Source : The Guardian