‘We see our history in their eyes’: Why Ireland is so staunchly pro-Palestinian


WASHINGTON ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — When the leader of Ireland appeared alongside President Joe Biden on St. Patrick’s Day, he spent about half of his speech advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza. But before he made his case, he explained why the issue hit so close to home.

“When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people,” Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, or prime minister, said Sunday at the White House. “And the answer is simple: We see our history in their eyes — a story of displacement, of dispossession and national identity questioned and denied, forced emigration, discrimination and now hunger.”

If Biden, an Irish-American who loves to celebrate his ancestral homeland, was hoping for some Irish cheer at the event, Varadkar was not the one to deliver.

The taoiseach said he “supports” the president’s push for a humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, and called for the release of Israeli hostages. But Varadkar went further in criticizing Israel than Biden has, calling on its “bombs to stop.” He added that “Israel must reverse its precipitous decision to authorize a land incursion into Rafah,” the city in southern Gaza that Israel says it must enter in order to defeat Hamas, but which now contains more than 1 million civilians. 

And before the meeting with Biden, he directed criticism directly at the president, who has largely supported Israel’s war effort despite some criticism. When a reporter asked Varadkar about American weapons shipments to Israel, Varadkar said, “That’s something we don’t agree with, but the American government is a sovereign government that makes its own decisions.”

The criticism isn’t surprising. As Varadkar explained, Ireland has historically favored the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel, a sympathy that has manifested over the years in its diplomacy and culture.

Ireland was the last European Union country to allow an Israeli embassy to open, in 1993, and was the first to call for a Palestinian state, in 1980. It has spearheaded criticism of Israel at the United Nations. 

Its mission to the United Nations said a Security Council Resolution calling for faster delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza did not go far enough, and instead called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, in line with the overwhelming view of the international community.”

Some of Ireland’s most prominent artists have joined pro-Palestinian initiatives. Virtually every Irish band scheduled to perform at the South By Southwest festival in Austin this month boycotted the event because of ties between some of the festival sponsors and Israel. Sally Rooney, the best-selling Irish novelist regarded as a voice of millennials, in 2021 refused to allow her work to be published in Israel.

In a recent op-ed for the Irish Times, Rooney chided Varadkar for not going far enough in his criticism of Biden. She criticized him for joining Biden’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, saying it enabled the president’s support of Israel.

“Strong straightforward criticism is reserved for the relatively small (and increasingly globally isolated) state of Israel,” she wrote. “This way, our Government can bask in the moral glow of condemning the bombers, while preserving a cozy relationship with those supplying the bombs.”

Irish people who back the Palestinians often ground their sympathies in the perception that both peoples were, or are, colonized — the Irish by the United Kingdom, and the Palestinians by Israel.

“The apparatus of occupation – armed military patrols on city streets, military checkpoints, segregated cities and separation walls – that shape daily life today in occupied Palestine is almost identical to the one once utilized by the British in Northern Ireland,” Aislin Walsh, an Irish scholar who specializes in colonialism, wrote this month in an op-ed for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

Irish advocates for the Palestinians stress what they see as a commonality of two peoples connected to their land and uprooted by violent invaders. In 2018, an Irish lawmaker brought Palestinian farmers to Ireland to make his case for boycotting goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Sinn Fein, the opposition party that has roots in the Irish Liberation Army, identifies with the Palestinians to the extent that its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, features a Palestinian flag as her background on her profile on X, formerly Twitter

During the Troubles, the decades-long violence in Northern Ireland, the IRA trained and coordinated with radical Palestinian groups; murals in Belfast’s nationalist redoubts feature themes of Irish-Palestinian solidarity. Northern Irish unionist politicians have made the same comparison, but in the other direction — expressing solidarity with Israel

The Ireland-Israel analogy has spread beyond the shores of the two nations. The heyday of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s, when the Oslo Accords were signed, coincided with the peace process in Northern Ireland, which culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The American former senator who helped broker that agreement, George Mitchell, later served as the U.S. envoy for Middle East peace. 

On Sunday, Varadkar said the Northern Ireland peace in the 1990s could serve as a model for the Israelis and Palestinians. 

“I also believe there are lessons that can be drawn from our own peace process in Northern Ireland, particularly the concept of parity of esteem and the totality of relationships,” he said at the White House.

More broadly, Irish diplomacy is informed by how the country perceives itself as a peacekeeper and an advocate for equity after years of conflict and the overthrow of colonial rule. Ireland first deployed peacekeeping troops in Lebanon in 1958, when the country was still impoverished and struggling. Irish diplomats tout what they say was Ireland’s leading role in the West in combating South African apartheid.

Ireland has for decades sent troops to UNIFIL, the U.N. force policing the Israel-Lebanon border. Repeated skirmishes between Irish troops and the now defunct South Lebanon Army, an ally and sometimes proxy for Israel, in the 1970s and 1980s exacerbated Israeli-Irish tensions.

The Irish are often at pains to say that their advocacy for the Palestinians does not mean they are anti-Israel. In 2011, when the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth quoted top Israeli diplomats as saying that Ireland was the “most hostile country in Europe,” Irish officials told the Irish Times that was a misconception. 

“The notion that this government is or would be trying to stoke up anti-Israeli feeling is untrue,” a foreign ministry spokesman told the paper. “We are not hostile to Israel. We are critical of policies, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories. These are not the same things.”

Varadkar also recently drew criticism from Israel over a social media post celebrating the release of Emily Hand, a child with dual Israeli-Irish citizenship who was taken hostage by Hamas and freed during a November ceasefire. He wrote, “An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned.”

Israel’s spokesman, Eylon Levy, responded, “Emily Hand wasn’t ‘lost’. She was brutally abducted by the death squads that massacred her neighbors. She wasn’t ‘found’. Hamas knew where she was all along and cynically held her as a hostage.”

On Sunday, Varadkar stressed his sense of identification with the Palestinians. But despite his criticism, he added that he also recognizes a shared history between Ireland and Israel.

“Mr. President, we also see Israel’s history reflected in our eyes,” he said. “A diaspora whose heart never left home, no matter how many generations passed; a nation state that was reborn; and a language revived.”