Why Ireland is such a fanatical supporter of Palestine

A woman walks past a pro-Palestine mural in the Harold's Cross area of Dublin in November 2023
A woman walks past a pro-Palestine mural in the Harold's Cross area of Dublin, November 2023 - PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

“Recognition is an act of powerful political and symbolic value,” the Taoiseach said as he declared Ireland would recognise Palestine as a state. “From our history, we know what it means.”

With these potent words, Simon Harris was evoking a sense of kinship with the Palestinians that is rooted deep in Irish society and its history of British colonial rule. It has made Ireland one of Europe’s most outspoken critics of Israel’s war in Gaza and one of the most pro-Palestinian countries in the world.

On Tuesday, his words became action when Ireland’s government officially recognised a Palestinian state, much to the ire of Israel.

It’s not hard to identify how this kinship arose. In January 1919, Irish politicians declared independence from the United Kingdom, set up a government in Dublin and claimed the recognition of “every free nation in the world”. A war followed but, three years later, the UK recognised the Irish Free State in a major step towards the future republic. Mr Harris said that declaration was “a plea for international recognition of our independence, emphasising our distinct national identity, our historical struggle, and our right to self-determination and justice”.

“Today we use the same language to support the recognition of Palestine as a state,” he said in Dublin. Last Wednesday’s coordinated announcement with Norway and Spain drew a furious response from Israel, which recalled their Irish ambassador.

To Dublin’s annoyance, the media in Jerusalem were allowed to film ambassador Sonya McGuinness when, having been summoned to the Israeli foreign affairs ministry for an official reprimand, she was shown videos of female hostages being taken during Hamas’s October 7 terror attack. The move was described as “totally unacceptable” by Micheál Martin, the Irish deputy premier.

On Friday, Dana Erlich, Israel’s ambassador to Ireland, accused the Irish of having a “disproportionate obsession with Israel that we don’t see with any other country”.

“It has gone beyond the normal criticism, it is a vilification of a whole society,” she told the Irish Times. She warned her government would “review” Ireland’s diplomatic, economic and humanitarian activities in Palestine.

Still, Harris, who became Taoiseach last month after replacing Leo Varadkar as leader of the centre-Right Fine Gael, was unrepentant. As the diplomatic row continued, he rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accusation that recognition was a “reward for terrorism”.

“We have been clear and unequivocal that we condemn Hamas, that we condemn the most horrific, barbaric massacre that Israel experienced on [October 7],” he said, before drawing on the historic parallels between Ireland and Palestine once again. “The IRA was never the people of Ireland and Hamas is not the people of Palestine,” he told CNN.

Ahead of two divisive elections set to be fought on housing and immigration, Palestine is a rare unifier among Ireland’s warring political parties from the centre-Right to Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Recognition is certainly a popular move ahead of European elections next month – a bellwether vote before a general election that must be held by March. For Fine Gael and its coalition partners the conservative Fianna Fáil and the Greens, it is a vote-winner, which stops it being outflanked by the stridently pro-Palestinian and Left-wing Sinn Fein, which has led the polls for the last two years.

It’s sobering to see why: in February, an Ireland Thinks poll found that 79 per cent of Irish people believe that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. The previous November, less than a month after October 7, a similar poll found that 84 per cent called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza. In comparison, a separate YouGov poll in December found that 59 per cent of British people supported immediate ceasefire.

Taoiseach Simon Harris pictured outside the Government Buildings, Dublin, as he announced that Ireland would recognise the state of Palestine
Taoiseach Simon Harris pictured outside Government Buildings, Dublin, as he announced that Ireland would recognise the state of Palestine - Damien Storan/PA

Since the start of the conflict, large numbers of people have marched on the Israeli embassy in the Irish capital. The sentiment has ranged from the hard-hitting to the oblique: as protesters chanted “how many children have to die” and “Palestine will be free” outside the embassy last month, and demanded the expulsion of the ambassador, one of the groups, Gaels Against Genocide, brought together support for Palestine wth a love for traditional Irish sports. Even Dublin’s Bohemian Football Club 2023 away kit was made in partnership with Palestine Sport For Life, with sales donated to bring football to children in camps on the West Bank. Jeremy Corbyn, whose time as leader of the Labour Party was mired in claims of anti-Semitism, was pictured wearing one of the shirts.

The protests have not just been confined to the Israeli embassy, however. Last month 100 protestors, organised by Irish Healthcare Workers for Palestine and Mothers Against Genocide, picketed the US embassy in Dublin, calling on Washington to end its support for Israeli attacks on Gaza. Trinity College Dublin was hit too: Ireland’s most famous university, is more used to long queues of tourists waiting to view its celebrated Book of Kells, but for five days in May, the campus was full of tents packed with Pro-Palestinian students, and closed to the public. Trinity was forced to issue refunds for its Book of Kells and Old Library exhibition, which brings millions of euros into the college.

The demonstration only ended after Trinity said it would divest from Israeli companies that are active in occupied territory and provide eight free places for students from Gaza to continue their education. Students’ Union president László Molnárfi said: “The agreement is that Trinity College Dublin will work towards complete divestment from Israel.”

Just over a century ago both Ireland and Palestine were under British control. Former prime minister Arthur Balfour was British cabinet secretary for Ireland in the 1880s and an opponent of Irish home rule. He was nicknamed “Bloody Balfour” by Irish nationalists after ordering police to open fire on protestors in Mitchelstown, Ireland. He would go on to be best known for 1917’s Balfour Declaration, which gave British backing to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

Former British prime minister Arthur Balfour with General Edmund Allenby (left) and Herbert Samuel, 1st High Commissioner of Palestine (right), in Jerusalem, 1925
Former British prime minister Arthur Balfour with General Edmund Allenby (left) and Herbert Samuel, 1st High Commissioner of Palestine (right), in Jerusalem, 1925 - AFP

Both territories had experience of the Black and Tans, former British soldiers recruited to the Irish police during the Irish war of independence. After the war, and after earning a reputation for brutality and bloody reprisals on civilians, they were stationed in Palestine as colonial masters over the largely Arab population.

Ireland did not recognise the state of Israel until 1963 and diplomatic relations were not established until 1975. Five years later, Ireland became the first EU member state to call for Palestinian statehood. It was also the last to grant Israel permission to open a residential embassy; there was not an Israeli embassy in Ireland until 1994. Irish neutrality in World War Two still casts a shadow over relations.

Meanwhile, Ireland and Palestine have had official relations since 2000: there’s an Irish representative office in Ramallah and Palestine has one in Dublin. At the United Nations, Ireland has consistently voted for motions to end the war and for Israel to withdraw from territories it has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Irish UN peacekeepers are stationed in Israel and the Golan Heights, which has not always helped relations between the two countries. And when Israel claimed that 12 United Nations Relief and Works Agency had links to Hamas in January, 16 countries including the UK, paused their funding. Dublin said it would continue to support Gaza’s main aid agency and increased its pledge to €20m, two and a half times what it was before the war.

The sympathy for Palestinians goes deeper than a romantic identification with an oppressed people struggling for independence from a bigger neighbour.

For many republicans, images of Palestinian protesters coming under fire from heavily armed soldiers carried echoes of the Catholic civil rights marches in Northern Ireland. On the Falls Road, a mural draws a direct comparison between a Palestinian hunger striker and Bobby Sands, who died in 1981. Another Belfast mural from 1983 shows armed IRA and Palestinian Liberation Organisation fighters holding a rocket launcher aloft with the motto “One Struggle”. During the Troubles, the PLO supplied the IRA with guns.

But others harbour hopes that the Good Friday Agreement could one day inspire peace in the Middle East.

The Troubles may have ended more than 25 years ago but even now, in Northern Ireland, nationalists are more likely to be pro-Palestine and unionists pro-Israel. In the early 2000s, Israeli flags began to appear in loyalist communities in response to the Palestinian flag being flown in nationalist areas. The phenomenon increased during the second intifada.

In 2006, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams laid a wreath on Yasser Arafat’s grave during a tour of the Middle East before meeting members of Hamas, which began the current war with its October 7 attack on Israel.

Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lays a wreath on the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, September 2006
Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams lays a wreath on the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, September 2006 - AFP

Sinn Fein is the sole all-Ireland party. Last week, Mr Adams’ successor Mary Lou McDonald, who displays a Palestinian flag across her Twitter account, praised the decision to recognise Palestine.

Michelle O’Neill, the First Minister of Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, said, “The people of Ireland will continue to stand up for the rights and freedom of the Palestinian people”.

The two leaders, whose party made the declaration of Irish independence back in 1919, had one criticism for their political rivals; that recognition hadn’t come sooner.

Ireland’s conservative government was even willing to risk angering Joe Biden, the most Irish president since Kennedy, by recognising Palestine ahead of its Western allies.

Mr Biden is, like Ireland, the UK and most of the international community, a supporter of the two-state solution and of recognising Palestine one day.

For him, and for the UK, international recognition of Palestine should happen. But only during or at the end of peace negotiations.

At the last St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar had urged Biden to put pressure on Netanyahu to agree a ceasefire.

“We see our history in their eyes,” Varadkar said at the White House. “A story of displacement, of dispossession and national identity questioned and denied, forced emigration, discrimination, and now hunger.”

But the force with which this affinity for the Palestinians is sometimes expressed is taking a toll on Ireland’s Jewish population – as a darker sentiment occasionally emerges. The community is small: about 2,500 people out of a population of 4.6million people. Alan Shatter, the Jewish former cabinet minister who, under taoiseach Enda Kenny, served as minister of justice and equality and minister for defence, has warned that anti-Semitism in Ireland today is “blatant and obvious”.

And, speaking to radio station Newstalk earlier this month he said: “I’m hugely concerned that no lessons have been remembered from the Holocaust.

“Significant things are happening in Ireland at the moment which are causing enormous concern.

“There’s been a substantial escalation in anti-Semitism, Jewish people are being targeted and Jewish people are suffering discrimination.”