Middle East

Israel and the Palestinians: The Irish connection

MV Rachel Corrie
Image caption There were five Irish people on board the MV Rachel Corrie

Recent attempts to deliver aid to Gaza by sea, in defiance of the Israeli blockade, revealed a strong Irish dimension. Vincent Dowd reports from Dublin on the connections between Ireland and the Palestinian cause.

For three years journalist Eoghan Harris has been an independent member of the Irish Senate.

How does it feel being avowedly pro-Israel in today's Republic of Ireland?

The Senator sighs. "I would probably be the only voice currently in the upper house of the Irish parliament to support Israel.

"The fact is there's a whole consensus now in Ireland against Israel."

Few would disagree. For a small nation, the involvement in attempts to deliver aid to Gaza by sea has been notable.

At the end of May there were Irish nationals in the original flotilla.

Then on 5 June the Israelis intercepted the Irish-registered MV Rachel Corrie, which also had Irish people on board.

Ireland's Fianna Fail Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, has condemned the blockade of Gaza as "a violation of international law".

'Pavlovian reaction'

Eoghan Harris says after the formation of Israel in 1948 some in Ireland were strongly on side with the new state, seeing a parallel with their own recent struggle against Britain.

"At first Zionism seemed quite an attractive philosophy," he says. "We'd been doing something like it ourselves.

"Each country had ambitions to revive its national language, Hebrew and Gaelic. Though they succeeded and we failed."

And Senator Harris points out that a later President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was born in Ireland.

He also acknowledges there was a different side to the story.

"There was always quite a strong anti-Semitic faction in Ireland, even if suppressed," he says.

"But then over the years the whole liberal left in Ireland shifted into anti-Israeli mode, as it's done in Europe generally."

Might it be that a nation which succeeded in kicking out the colonial master came to identify more with the Palestinians as underdogs?

"There's a Pavlovian reaction," says Senator Harris. "As a rule the Irish like to side with small nations against any big nation. A lot of it is empty posturing".

British colonialists

Another factor may be Israel's closeness to the USA.

In earlier decades public criticism of America was almost unknown in Ireland.

But the image of a benign and wealthy Uncle Sam across the Atlantic took a knock in the George W Bush years, says Fintan Lane of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

"Israel is closely associated with the United States, and even [President Barack] Obama hasn't managed to recreate the levels of support for America you got here before Bush.

"But also it's down to Israel's policies. I was on the flotilla and just look at the support we've had in the last couple of weeks."

Mr Lane says one factor has been that the MV Rachel Corrie set sail from Ireland, with some Irish crewing.

The vessel was bought in March by the Free Gaza Movement; under an earlier name it had lain abandoned in Dundalk after its owners went bust.

"But Palestinian solidarity activists in other European countries have always remarked on the depth of support here for Palestine," says Mr Lane.

"People see the Israelis as meting out what Ireland suffered from British colonialists.

"It's true that historically some in Israel saw the rebel leader Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera [Ireland's first Taoiseach] as heroes."

Public relations

But Mr Lane says the admiration the other way had evaporated by the 1970s as Palestinian resistance gathered momentum.

"Once interest here was mainly on the Left and from Republicans," he says. "Now even right-wing politicians make pro-Palestinian comments."

"In Northern Ireland the Nationalist community has often had Palestinian flags flying in the street - and in retaliation the Loyalist community tends to fly Israeli flags. They associate Palestinians with Irish Republicanism."

Senator Harris sees a parallel between Israel's standing in the Republic today and how the South used to view northern Unionists.

"The Israelis are seen almost as evil, as Unionism was," says Senator Harris. "But the Unionists were never evil, they were just terribly bad at public relations.

"They said, 'We're a democratic state under attack; you should support us.' But their narrative was bad; they weren't media friendly."

"Today the Israelis have the best story in the world to tell, but they tell it terribly badly. They need an Alastair Campbell or a Peter Mandelson."

Ireland forced out its colonial master, a memory which runs deep.

Its people are often alert to anything they perceive as latter-day colonialism.

For now supporters of Israel in Ireland are likely to remain a small minority.

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