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Times Of Israel
Times Of Israel
16 Dec 2023

NextImg:With Ireland’s Sinn Féin on the rise, support for Israel hits new low post-Oct. 7

LONDON — While Ireland has long been described as Israel’s greatest European critic, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has seen relations between Jerusalem and Dublin dip to new lows.

Ireland’s taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has consistently condemned Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on southern Israel that saw 1,200 people killed and 240 taken hostage into Gaza — including a 9-year-old Irish dual citizen. In the wake of the brutal massacre and large-scale atrocities, Varadkar initially spoke of Israel’s right to defend itself, but in early November he labeled Israel’s actions as “something approaching revenge.”

At the same time, Irish President Michael D. Higgins has sharply criticized EU President Ursula von der Leyen’s pro-Israel stance, saying her approach was “thoughtless and reckless” and that she “wasn’t speaking for Ireland.” As is the case in Israel, the president — who has accused Israel of leaving international law in “tatters” and engaging in “collective punishment” of the Palestinians — stands above party politics.

Like France and Spain, Ireland has repeatedly called for a ceasefire, a position resisted by more pro-Israel European states such as Britain, Germany and Austria.

Prime Minister Varadkar caused further anger in Jerusalem when he responded to Hamas’s release of 9-year-old Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hands late last month by tweeting that she was “lost” and had been “found and returned” — language which seemed to purposefully avoid referencing her kidnappers’ calculated intention to capture her and imprison her for 50 days.

But while accusations of antisemitism and “anti-Israel hatred” have been leveled against the Republic in the past, the picture is more complex. The often-strained relationship between Ireland and the Jewish state is inextricably tied to each nation’s history of trauma and violence and its experience of British rule. That backdrop has contributed to some surprising affinities — and plenty of continuing tensions.

Michael Davitt in 1895. (Charlie Farr/Public domain)

Some 20th-century Irish nationalists saw parallels between what they regarded as Britain’s brutal rule of Ireland and the suffering of the Jews. After witnessing the aftermath of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom in Tsarist Russia, Michael Davitt, an Irish republican activist, declared: “I have come from a journey through the Jewish Pale, a convinced believer in the remedy of Zionism.”

Irish historian Aidan Beatty argues that “Irish nationalism and Zionism have actually shared a number of important similarities as well as points-of-contact: their contemporaneous peace processes; the centrality of Diasporas to Irish and Israeli nationalisms; the role of major traumas [the Famine and the Holocaust], in these identities; the political weight of Irish and Jewish communities in America; the tortuous relationship with the British Empire; and, of course, partition. In addition, both movements sought to revive ancient languages as part of their drive to create a prideful national identity. Both viewed agrarian labor and militaries as key means for national redemption.”

A photograph taken following the Kishinev (today Chisinau, Moldova) pogrom in 1903, when 49 Jews were murdered following a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community. (Public domain)

As the UK historian Colin Schindler writes, the Jewish nationalists who fought Britain in the Mandate’s bloody closing years viewed themselves as “the Zionist Sinn Féin” and drew inspiration from Irish republicanism. Established in 1905, Sinn Féin — which was closely allied to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — fought to free Ireland from British rule, with many in the party opposing the partition of 1921. This established the newly independent Republic of Ireland, while Northern Ireland — the majority-Protestant six counties of the north of the island — remained (and remain) part of the UK.

Avraham Stern, leader of the paramilitary Lehi, was so taken with the Irish struggle against Britain that he translated P.S. O’Hegarty’s “The Victory of Sinn Féin” into Hebrew, while one of Lehi’s leading lights, future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, took “Michael” — after the assassinated Irish republican leader Michael Collins — as his nom de guerre.

Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in 1919. (Public domain)

In the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Ireland’s foreign minister, Sean McBride, said: “Our common suffering from persecution and certain similarities in the histories of the two races create a special bond of sympathy and understanding between the Irish and Jewish peoples.” Two years later, Éamon De Valera, one of the Irish state’s founding fathers who served as both prime minister and president, visited Israel at the invitation of Isaac Herzog, then-chief rabbi of Israel. Herzog, who had previously served as chief rabbi of Ireland, is the father of onetime Israeli president Chaim Herzog and grandfather of current Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

De Valera was accompanied by his friend and close political ally, Robert Briscoe. A rare but long-serving Jewish member of the Dáil, the Irish parliament, Briscoe became a strong supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and secured the Revisionist Zionist leader a meeting with De Valera in Dublin in 1938. Throughout World War II, Ireland remained neutral and De Valera infamously offered his condolences at the Germany Legation on Hitler’s death in May 1945.

Ireland and Israel did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1975 and there was no Israeli Embassy in Dublin until 1993, with Ireland’s embassy in Tel Aviv opening three years later. The two countries have frequently had a difficult relationship over the past 50 years.

Ireland was, for instance, the first EEC state (as the EU was then called) to back Palestinian statehood in 1980. “Since then, every Irish Government has given a high priority to the achievement of a ‘two state solution,’” the country’s Foreign Ministry proudly declares.

Palestinians carry a picture of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, as others carry his coffin, left, during his funeral procession at Yarmouk, near Damascus, Syria, January 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi/File)

Thirty years later, Ireland expelled a diplomat from the Israeli Embassy following revelations that Mossad had used fake Irish passports in the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. (Britain acted similarly over the use of forged UK passports.)

The 2014 war between Hamas and Israel saw the Irish government speak of its “horror and revulsion” at the “horrendous scenes” in Gaza. The Dáil later voted to recognize a Palestinian state, although, unlike Sweden, the Irish government has held off doing so.

Soon after war broke out between Israel and Hamas once again in May 2021, Ireland became the first EU state to condemn Israel’s alleged “de facto” annexation of Palestinian land, a charge Israel rejected as “outrageous and baseless.” The Dáil did, however, reject a proposal to expel the Israeli ambassador and impose a comprehensive package of sanctions on the Jewish state.

But, unlike in Britain, where it remains confined to a small but noisy coterie of pro-Palestinian activists, the BDS movement has gained some political traction in Ireland. In 2018, Dublin became the first European capital to support BDS. The move came as the Irish parliament backed the controversial Occupied Territories Bill, which would ban and criminalize trade with “illegal settlements.” The bill is supported by a wide spectrum of Irish parties from the conservative Fianna Fáil to Sinn Féin, the Labour party and the hard-left People Before Profit–Solidarity alliance. Only opposition from Varadkar’s center-right Fine Gael party — which formed a governing coalition with arch-rival Fianna Fáil to keep Sinn Féin out of power after the 2020 general election — has stalled the legislation.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protestors hold a banner in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

While many of its European partners — Britain, France, Germany and Belgium, for instance — were imperial powers, Ireland has the rarer experience of colonization. But while Irish nationalists may once have seen an affinity with Jews struggling to throw off the yoke of British Mandatory rule, that empathy largely passed to the Palestinians in the years after 1967.

A member of the so-called Black and Tan British paramilitary force has his hand on the trigger of a gun, ready for action during rioting in Dublin, Ireland, November 24, 1920. (AP Photo)

“If there’s any nation that can understand the difficulties that the Palestinians are living under now it’s the Irish,” Pat Sheehan, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (the province’s devolved parliament), told AFP in late October. “Ireland has suffered colonialism and occupation for 800 years, there have been many armed uprisings against British rule, and we see Palestinians suffering under similar colonial occupation.”

It’s also not lost on the pro-Palestinian Irish that Ronald Storrs, a British military governor of Jerusalem during the Mandate, spoke approvingly of a Jewish homeland being a “little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” They note too that the much-hated “Black and Tans” paramilitaries, which Britain deployed during the Irish War of Independence in 1919-21, were later sent to Palestine to put down Arab unrest.

But Unionists in Northern Ireland, who are mainly Protestant and wish to remain part of the UK, are strongly pro-Israel.

“The unionist community in Northern Ireland has a long-standing affinity and affiliation to the cause of Israel,” Brian Kingston, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) member of the Assembly, told AFP. “We see Israel as having suffered terribly from terrorism over the years just like we have.”

The Unionists note the close links between the PLO and IRA, with the Palestinians shipping weapons to the Irish terror group for its bombing campaign against the British during the 30-year “Troubles” which largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The Unionist parties are also among the strongest pro-Israel voices in the British parliament.

Some of those involved with the peace process in Ireland believe there is a parallel with another seemingly intractable conflict: that between Israel and the Palestinians. For many years, Britain’s chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, has argued that, just as the UK eventually sat down with the IRA, terror groups such as Hamas will have to be talked to.

Others, such as the Alliance for Middle East Peace, point out that the kind of grassroots work to build constituencies for peace that was pioneered in Northern Ireland has not received the same attention — and funding — in Israel-Palestine.

But some reject the parallels. “Irish terrorists were fighting over power in one small corner of the United Kingdom,” Melanie Phillips, a conservative columnist in The Times newspaper, wrote earlier this year. “The IRA wanted a united Ireland; it did not want to occupy Britain and wipe out the British. By contrast, the Palestinian Arabs are intent on wiping out Israel altogether.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Sen. George Mitchell, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, pose together after they signed the Good Friday agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, April 10, 1998. (AP Photo)

Israel will not be comforted by the fact that Sinn Féin is on a political roll. For the first time ever, it won the most votes in Ireland’s last general election. It now leads the polls ahead of a general election due by March 2025, raising the prospect of Sinn Féin’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, becoming Taoiseach.

McDonald, who had been adopting a less confrontational stance towards Israel, has reverted to type during the current conflict. Speaking at the party’s annual conference last month, she accused Israel of carrying out “barbaric, hateful, cowardly war crimes,” and joined grassroots calls for Ireland to expel the Israeli ambassador, Dana Erlich.

The party’s critics argue that Sinn Féin’s concern about civilian deaths in Gaza sits uneasily with its past association with the IRA, which murdered, “disappeared” and kidnapped civilians during its bloody terror campaign.

In the north, Sinn Féin is similarly gaining ground. For the first time since the 1998 agreement, it gained the most votes in last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections, pushing the DUP into second place.

Thanks to continuing wrangling over Britain’s post-Brexit trading arrangements with Northern Ireland, the Assembly is currently suspended. But if and when it’s restored, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy president, will become first minister. In October, she joined pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Belfast, where she called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to “the occupation, illegal settlements and apartheid.”

Ireland’s often-stormy relationship with Israel shows few signs of heading for calmer seas.