A history of Ireland's support for Palestine

One of many political murals, a part of Belfast's International Wall on Falls Road. On Monday, April 19, 2021, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]
7 min read
17 June, 2021
In-depth: The historical parallels of colonialism, repression, and inequality shared by Ireland and Palestine have created a bond of solidarity between both nations.

On 28 May 2021, the Irish tricolour flag was raised in Ramallah to the sound of the Irish national anthem. A video of the ceremony was subsequently widely shared on social media. 

To some, the Irish flag blowing in the wind alongside its Palestinian counterpart may have been a source of confusion or consternation, but to many in Ireland, it was received with a great sense of pride, serving as a visual reminder of the historic parallels and sense of solidarity shared by the two nations.

On 26 May, Ireland became the first European nation to label Israel's actions in the occupied territories as a 'De Facto annexation', after a motion brought forward by the main opposition party, Sinn Fein, passed in the Irish Parliament. 

Another motion proposed that same day by the People Before Profit party to expel the Israeli ambassador failed to pass, but Ireland had already broken ranks with other Western nations, many of whom have opted to maintain the status quo.

"Ireland, like Palestine, has a long history of occupation by a foreign power, with famine, dispossession and vicious military crackdowns etched into the nation's collective unconscious"

The move came after weeks of uproar over the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and the subsequent bombing of Gaza. While outrage over these events was felt globally and gained massive traction on social media, Irish solidarity with Palestine is nothing new. 

Ireland has a long history of support for Palestine, its own experience of colonisation shaping national sentiment towards the plight of Palestinian people and the Israeli regime.

Ireland's 'Troubles'

Ireland only formally became independent from Britain in 1922 after years of guerilla warfare against Crown forces. The resulting peace treaty granted independence to most of the island but kept six northern counties in the province of Ulster under British control. 

This partition, proposed in 1921 and tacitly acquiesced by the Irish Government, created both the Irish State in the south and the British region of Northern Ireland in the north.

A British soldier stands in front of a graffitied wall in Belfast in 1971. [Getty]
A British soldier stands in front of a graffitied wall in Belfast in 1971. [Getty]

The treaty and resulting partition may have ended the conflict in the south, but it left a sizable Irish Catholic minority on the northern side of the boundary which was drawn specifically to deliver a Protestant majority, thus granting Protestants political supremacy in the region. 

Northern Protestants predominantly desired union with Britain, seeing themselves as British and rejecting the ideology of Irish Nationalism.

Northern Ireland was envisaged as a "Protestant State" by its first Prime Minister James Craig, with Catholic participation in government positions sharply declining after the partition and the social status of Catholics relegated to second class citizenship, massively under-represented in law enforcement, employment, and politics.

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The sentiment of the Protestant establishment towards the Catholic Irish minority in Northern Ireland is perhaps best encapsulated by the 1948 words of E.C. Ferguson, a Unionist Party MP:

"This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone [the Nationalist majority] around our necks."

Things began to shift in the early 1960s, as the first Irish civil rights movement was formed in the North, initially hoping to achieve civil liberties through peaceful protest without a sectarian dimension. 

The reaction of state security forces eventually quashed any hope of peaceful change after police attacked demonstrators in Derry in 1969. The downward trend would continue, and in 1972 British Paratroopers massacred Catholic civilians, with tit for tat killings becoming a regular occurrence. 

"The 1917 Balfour declaration, a decree by the British government in support of a homeland for the Jewish people, was intended to create a 'little loyal Jewish Ulster'"

The region cascaded into nearly 40 years of brutal civil war known as the "Troubles" which eventually culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a peace deal brokered between nationalists and unionists by the Irish Republic, the UK, and the US.

Irish-Palestinian parallels

While it is easy to spot narrative parallels between the Irish and Palestinian struggles against colonialism, the historical connection has at times been far more visceral. 

The 1917 Balfour declaration, a decree by the British government in support of a homeland for the Jewish people, was intended to create a "little loyal Jewish Ulster" according to Ronald Storrs, British military governor of Palestine, referencing Ireland's heavily Protestant northern province. 

In 1921, Winston Churchill deployed the "Black and Tans", a widely reviled paramilitary force that had been used to carry out vicious crackdowns and atrocities in Ireland, to Palestine in order to put down civil unrest. 

Pro-Palestine mural on Falls Road in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]
Pro-Palestine mural on Falls Road in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]

Henry Hugh Tudor, former commander of the British forces in Ireland, was made General Officer Commanding and inspector of Police and Prisons in Palestine in 1922.

During the Troubles, the Nationalist side threw their support behind similar movements also fighting for civil rights and self-determination, in places such as South Africa, the Basque Country, and Palestine. 

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed military ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), with members attending training camps in the Middle East and weapons smuggled from the PLO to Ireland.

Today this connection is still visible through many of the murals that dot nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, with Palestinian flags also a common sight. 

"The Republic of Ireland has a long history of backing Palestinian self-determination in an official capacity"

It is also not uncommon to see Palestinian flags burn in the annual bonfires of the Ulster Loyalist community, who have chosen to identify more closely with Israel, though this connection is perhaps derived more from antagonism with the nationalist community rather than a strong pro-Israel sentiment.

Support for Palestine is not only found among the northern nationalist community. 

The Republic of Ireland has a long history of backing Palestinian self-determination in an official capacity. In 1980, Ireland became the first country in the EU to call for an independent Palestinian state and, in 1993, it became the last European country to receive an Israeli embassy.

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Ireland's stance on Palestine has prompted a number of inflammatory responses from the Israeli government. Perhaps the most provocative of these have come from the Israeli Embassy in Dublin, which in 2012 posted a Christmas message on Facebook stating:

"If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought……."

Though the Embassy later apologised for this, a subsequent post in 2014 depicting Dublin's famous Molly Malone statue wearing a Burqa with the caption "Israel now Ireland next," sparked outrage against what was perceived by many as a clear attempt to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment in Ireland.

In 2018, the Irish approved the Occupied Territories Bill, which aims to prohibit "trade with and economic support for illegal settlements," threatening those who buy goods produced in illegal settlements with a $300,000 fine and a maximum prison sentence of five years.

Family member Julieann Camphill stands beside the Bloody Sunday mural depicting the body of her uncle, Jackie Duddy being carried away after British soldiers opened fire on civil rights marchers in Londonderry on 30 January, 1972. [Getty]
Family member Julieann Camphill stands beside the Bloody Sunday mural depicting the body of her uncle, Jackie Duddy being carried away after British soldiers opened fire on civil rights marchers in Londonderry on 30 January 1972. [Getty]

The bill, though approved by the Senate, has not yet been written into law owing to a lack of support from the governing Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties.

Ireland, like Palestine, has a long history of occupation by a foreign power, with famine, dispossession and vicious military crackdowns etched into the nation's collective unconscious.

Scenes of expulsion, such as those in Sheikh Jarrah, are a particular source of revulsion for many in Ireland and pictures of Israeli soldiers squaring off against unarmed civilians bear, for many, a striking similarity to images of the British army on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The recent events in East Jerusalem and Gaza sparked massive outrage in Ireland, with many writing to politicians demanding action or taking to the streets in protest. 

"In May, Ireland became the first European nation to label Israel's actions in the occupied territories as a 'De Facto annexation'"

While the response of the current government may not have gone as far as many would have liked, it still honours the tradition of support for Palestine.

Perhaps more importantly, the outpouring of support from the Irish people, particularly young people, which left the Irish corners of social media inundated with Palestinian flags, appeals for civil action and messages of support and outrage for weeks, proves that a new generation of Irish people has inherited a sense of solidarity and fondness for Palestine.

With Irish unity entering the realm of possibility in the wake of Brexit and tensions flaring at the faultlines of Ireland's own colonial history in the last few months, it is likely that that support for, and appreciation of Palestinian self-determination will only continue to grow and develop well into the future.

Adam Doyle is an artist and researcher based in the Republic of Ireland specialising in Irish and Northern Irish Politics.

Follow him on Instagram: @spicebag.exe