The people of Ireland and Palestine are bound by an empathy born from a shared struggle against the evils of colonialism, writes Tiernan Cannon
In the wake of the Israeli army’s order to Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes ahead of an expected ground invasion, Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland, did not mince his words. “I have thought about it,” he remarked to reporters, “and I think that it really reduces all that code that was there, from the Second World War through the Geneva Conventions, about the protection of civilians — it reduces it to tatters.”
To anyone unfamiliar with Ireland’s stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the president’s comments may have seemed rather odd. Odd, not because he obfuscated the truth or downplayed the severity of Israeli crimes, but precisely because he did the opposite. Higgins called out Israeli action for what it was: a violation of international law.
Ireland’s criticisms of Israel and support for Palestine run deeper than the words of its president, whose role, in any case, is largely ceremonial. Successive Irish governments have supported a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in 1980 the country became the first European Union member to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Ireland opposed the construction of Israel’s security wall in the West Bank in 2003, and in 2021 it defined the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as “de facto annexation.”
The Irish government’s record on Palestine is by no means beyond reproach — it has not yet, for instance, recognised Palestine as an independent state — but its attitude nonetheless tends to stand out from that of its Western allies. That is because its people share an affinity with the Palestinians, whose ongoing experience of colonial oppression echoes their own history.
Ireland was England’s first ever colony and spent centuries under English — and later British — rule. Throughout this period, large numbers of English and Scottish people, most of whom were Protestant, were encouraged to settle in the north of Ireland, where the native population was overwhelmingly Catholic. These settlers considered the indigenous Irish to be racially inferior to themselves, an attitude that the British would, in time, export to other parts of their expanding empire.
Many of the racist, imperial policies that came to define how the British operated in places such as India, North America and, of course, Palestine were first practised in Ireland. As Professor Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, once put it, Ireland and Palestine represent the “first and last laboratories where the British state experimented with settler colonialism.”
On November 2, 1917, as the horrors of World War I were unfolding, the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, wrote a short letter to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leading figure of the Jewish community in Britain. In it, he committed the British government to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” even though Palestine was still then a part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Balfour Declaration, as the letter came to be known, in effect promised the Jews a homeland in which the existing population was overwhelmingly Arab.
The Irish had previously had their own dealings with Arthur Balfour. He had served as Britain’s Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1887 and 1891, during which time he introduced the Perpetual Crimes Act, which allowed rent strike and boycott organisers to be tried without a jury. Hundreds were thrown in jail under the act, including the Irish nationalist politician William O’Brien.
When protests against O’Brien’s arrest erupted in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, an armed, quasi-military police force that operated throughout most of Ireland on behalf of the British administration, opened fire on the crowd and killed three people. The nickname “Bloody Balfour,” by which the Irish came to know Arthur Balfour, was well-earned.
Balfour, however, is far from the only agent of British imperialism to afflict misery upon both the Irish and the Palestinian people. When the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919, the British Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, sought to bolster RIC forces struggling to suppress republican rebellion. A recruitment drive was initiated in 1920, with many British soldiers who’d fought in World War I stepping forward to serve. These new recruits imbued the RIC with a more violent character and became known as the Black and Tans, a reference to the colour of their uniforms.
A further recruitment drive led to the creation of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, which was commanded by Major-General Henry Hugh Tudor and consisted largely of British officers who’d served in World War I. The Auxiliaries were technically distinct from the Black and Tans, but owing to their shared predilection for brutality and the similarity of their uniforms, the two came to be perceived as synonymous. Notorious for their ill-discipline and indiscriminate acts of violence against civilians, they terrorised Irish nationalists until the RIC was disbanded in 1922, following the partition of Ireland and the creation of British-ruled Northern Ireland the previous year.
Around the time that the Black and Tans were being formed in Ireland in 1920, a League of Nations mandate for Palestine was being assigned to Britain, following the territory’s capture from the defeated Ottoman Empire. While the Mandate would only officially come into effect in 1923, the British had already established a presence throughout Palestine and tensions with the native Arab population were simmering.
Winston Churchill, now the Secretary of State for the Colonies, decided that a special force should be created to quell Arab resistance. Henry Hugh Tudor, the former commander of the disbanded Auxiliaries in Ireland, informed Churchill that hundreds of his out-of-work men were ready for deployment. More than 730 former RIC members ultimately went on to serve in Palestine as members of a paramilitary police force known as the British Gendarmerie. The Black and Tans, so emblematic of the oppression the Irish suffered at the hands of the British, had been sent to Palestine.
Throughout the Mandatory period, the British facilitated the flow of Jewish migrants — many of whom were fleeing the horrors of Nazism — into Palestine, but as the 1940s neared their end they handed over the “Question of Palestine” to the newly created United Nations, which proposed the partitioning of the territory into separate Arab and Jewish states. The Plan of Partition was approved by the U.N. General Assembly, but was rejected by most of the Arab world. Irish republicans, too, saw that partition would be disastrous, having experienced first-hand the violence that had been unleashed by the division of their island, which ultimately contributed to the outbreak of civil war in 1922.
Northern Ireland was born through partition and violence, and there was to be no respite for the significant minority of Irish nationalists who lived within its borders. The same could be said for the Palestinians, who, after the British Mandate was terminated in 1948, now had to contend with the newly born State of Israel. Following partition, both the Palestinians and the nationalists in Northern Ireland were subjected to brutal oppression that, while distinct, has at times mirrored what the other has faced.
The peace lines, a series of physical barriers in Northern Ireland that separate Irish nationalist and British loyalist communities, were erected in 1969 and many remain standing today. The Israeli West Bank barrier entered construction in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, and cut off thousands of Palestinians’ ability to access social services, schools and farmland.
In Northern Ireland, education was — and remains to this day — deeply segregated. In Israel, too, there are multiple school systems, which, in addition to keeping Arab and Jewish children apart, also separates young Jews on the grounds of whether or not they are secular, religious or ultra-Orthodox. In Northern Ireland, Irish became an official language only in 2022. In Israel, the status of Arabic has actually moved in the opposite direction, having previously been a co-official language alongside Hebrew, but being downgraded in 2018.
To this day, Israel employs the use of administrative detention, in which people are arrested without trial or charge on suspicion that they may commit a crime in future. This practice was first introduced by the British during the Mandatory period, and, indeed, a similar system of detention without trial was introduced in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Thousands of arrests followed, with many republicans being sent to Long Kesh Detention Centre, later renamed as HM Prison Maze.
Republicans interned inside the Maze demanded that they be recognised as political prisoners rather than as common criminals. Special political status was initially granted to these prisoners in 1972, but was withdrawn again in 1976. Appalled by the reversal, the republican prisoners embraced the hunger strike as an act of resistance. On March 1, 1981, a young prisoner named Bobby Sands refused to take food. One by one, more prisoners joined the strike, and by the time it was called off, ten of them, including 27-year-old Sands, were dead.
Following Sands’ death on May 5, Palestinian prisoners held in Israel managed to smuggle out a letter. It read, “We salute the heroic struggle of Bobby Sands and his comrades, for they have sacrificed the most valuable possession of any human being. They gave their lives for freedom.” Hunger strikes were a tactic employed by Palestinians before the death of Bobby Sands, and they have remained so since. On May 2, 2023, the Palestinian activist Khader Adnan died in an Israeli jail, after 87 days without food. His protest was against administrative detention.
There is an oft-repeated aphorism attributed to Mark Twain that reads, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Nowhere is this assertion more accurate than in the case of Palestine and Ireland. Their stories are not identical, but their people are unquestionably bound by an empathy forged through their shared struggle against the evils of colonialism.It is for that reason that Irish governments so often stand out from their Western allies in condemning Israeli crimes.
It is why Palestinian flags and murals are ubiquitous throughout republican neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland. It is why the ultras of Celtic F.C., a Glasgow football club rooted in the experiences of poor Irish migrants, displayed a sea of Palestinian flags during a recent Champions League match. It is why, in short, the Irish people stand with Palestine.
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