DRIVE through the peace walls of north and west and Belfast and you will be struck by the number of Palestinian and Israeli flags. The tragedy unfolding in the Middle-East has divided opinion around the world and deepened disagreement in Ireland. Unionists and nationalists long ago picked sides in this barbarous conflict though few take time to understand its roots or ponder just solutions.
In Dublin the government condemned the violence and set aside 13m euro in aid. Protests were peaceful. In Belfast, where there is no government, there were scuffles at a rally highlighting the plight of displaced Palestinians and unionist outrage when students at Irish language school, Coláiste Feirste, expressed support for their cause.
There are few Palestinians in Ireland, a small community is concentrated in Dublin, but relations between the Republic and Palestine have long been cordial. In 1980 Ireland was the first member of the European Union to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state and in 2011 accorded diplomatic status to a Palestinian delegation. However formal diplomatic recognition of the country has yet to be established.
The Jewish community has a longer history here and has made a significant contribution to both north and south. Despite periods of anti-Semitism, it is stable at around 2,500. Jews have had input to both political and justice systems as well as making an impact upon economic and cultural life on the island. This was formally recognised by President Michael D Higgins in 2016. Irish-born Jews have also made a contribution to the development of Israel. Chaim Herzog, who was born in Belfast and went to school in Dublin, was president of Israel for 10 years until 1993. Ireland recognised the state of Israel in 1963 and established diplomatic relations in 1975.
Northern Ireland’s unionists largely identify with the Jewish state established in 1948 with tacit support from Britain and the United States of America. They see themselves as a besieged people with a right to govern a homeland that God gave to them. Some fundamentalists even believe Ulster’s Protestants are the lost tribe of Biblical Israel and ignore the killing of Palestinian civilians. They consider the Provisional Irish Republican Army and it’s successors to be Hamas.
Former Unionist First Minister and right wing commentator, Arlene Foster, was quick to use the conflict as another opportunity to attack her political opponents in Sinn Féin and accused some of Ireland’s republican community of delighting at atrocities inflicted upon the Jewish people. She said, “Instead of standing up for the women and children of Israel they called for a Free Palestine.”
She condemned terrorism without defining the phenomenon and called the IRA and Hamas ‘sister organisations’. She offered no solution to the ongoing brutality but promised to pray for ‘the people of Israel and all in the region.’
Northern Ireland’s nationalists largely identify with the 700,000 Arabs driven from Palestine by Jewish migrants after World War Two. They settled into the Gaza strip and the West Bank during the Nakba and the wars that followed. Some extremists support the right of Hamas to wage a ruthless campaign for the return of their homes and holy places and refuse to condemn those who would exterminate nine million Israelis. They consider British people in Ireland and their supporters to be invaders.
Veteran nationalist and left-winger Bernadette McAliskey pointed the finger at Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu and accused him of provoking the latest outrages committed by Hamas. She said, “Two million people held hostage; treated as sub-human with no right to a homeland they have inhabited for over 2,000 years. Hamas is the consequence not the cause and Netanyahu proved to be Goliath’s Achilles Heel.”
Her solution is a secular state in which Jews, Arabs and others have the same rights and freedoms protected by the UN. She provided no insight into how the international community might establish acceptable rules or control the violent extremists within both Jewish and Arab communities. She had no insight to offer about preventing the malign influence of rogue elements in Iran and the USA.
Neither Foster nor McAliskey put forward a road map about how to end the latest cycle of tit-for-tat horrors and begin the lengthy process of fostering peace and reconciliation between age old enemies with a history of bloodletting and visceral hatred.
There are many more differences than similarities between the long conflicts which have convulsed Palestine and Ireland, though they have a religious dimension they are essentially about identity and control of land. What they share is clear evidence that partition is not an enduring solution to ethnic conflicts and how the international community has an important role to play in building confidence and laying the foundations for lasting peace.
The struggle for Irish independence and creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 leaned heavily on Irish American money and diplomatic pressure from the free nations that emerged from The Great War of 1914-18. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998, would not have been possible without the input of the European Union, the USA and other nations with large Irish populations and sympathies. They remain key players in Ireland’s future as supporters of the GFA and persuaders in favour of the Windsor Agreement which seeks to find a compromise over the economic and political conundrums brought about by Brexit.
As we have learned it is those at the heart of the darkness in the Holy Land who must seek the light and encourage their children to carry forward a flicker of compromise with hope and courage. Those with compassion and understanding in Ireland have a small contribution to make by pointing out the futility of violence and promoting alternatives to bloody chaos. Taking sides is moral cowardice.
The poet WB Yeats wrote of Ireland’s darkest days – Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart. Stones must be turned into building blocks.