Tracing the Deep Roots of Ireland’s Support for Palestinians

Under the light drizzle of a Tuesday morning last month, Ríonach Ní Néill and a group of friends set up a small platform in front of the United States Embassy in Dublin.

Then they took out a stack of papers. For the next 11 and a half hours, Ms. Ní Néill and others took turns reading out thousands of names — each one a person killed since Israel started bombarding Gaza in the war, according to a list released by the Gazan health authorities.

It was an attempt to convey the enormity of the loss of life, she said.

“I think the baseline really in Ireland is that human rights are valued, and what’s happening now is the destruction of universal human rights,” said Ms. Ní Néill, 52, an artist from Galway. “This is not something that can be ignored.”

In Ireland, support for Palestinian civilians runs deep, rooted in what many see as a shared history of British colonialism and the experience of a seemingly intractable and traumatic conflict, which in Ireland’s case came to a close with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Since the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people, according to the Israeli authorities, and the subsequent bombardment of Gaza, Ireland has emerged as something of an outlier in Europe for its stance on the conflict.

While condemning the Hamas atrocities, lawmakers across Ireland’s political spectrum were among the first in Europe to call for the protection of Palestinian civilians and denounce the scale of Israel’s response, which has left more than 15,000 people dead, according to health officials in Gaza — a rate of casualties with few precedents in the 21st century.

Last month, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, said he strongly believed that Israel had the right to defend itself, but that what was unfolding in Gaza “resembles something approaching revenge.”

Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, whose post as head of state is considered above the political fray, described “unanimous revulsion” at the Hamas attacks, but said that Israeli strikes that killed civilians threatened to leave human rights agreements “in tatters.”

Those views are mainstream in Ireland. In a poll published last month, about 71 percent of respondents classified Israel’s response as “disproportionately severe.” About 65 percent also said that Hamas should be officially proscribed as a terrorist organization. Tens of thousands have taken part in weekly protests calling for an end to Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Jane Ohlmeyer, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin and author of “Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World,” said that the country’s status as a former British colony had “undoubtedly shaped how people from Ireland engage with post-colonial conflicts.”

That history sets Ireland apart from a number of other countries in Western Europe, many of which were themselves imperial powers, she added, while giving it common ground with Palestinians.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain was given administrative control over the area then known as Palestine. Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, Arthur James Balfour — who was previously Britain’s chief secretary for Ireland, and known for his sometimes brutal suppression of Irish demands for independence — had laid out his country’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

A few years later, Britain granted independence to much of the island of Ireland but held on to the six counties that still make up Northern Ireland and remain part of the United Kingdom. That legislation provided the template for partitions in other former British colonies, including India and Pakistan in 1947, “and Israel and Palestine” the following year, said Dr. Ohlmeyer.

British officials have drawn their own parallels between the Irish and the Palestinians. Ronald Storrs, who was governor of Jerusalem from 1917 to 1926, wrote in his memoir that if enough Jewish people moved to Palestine, it could “form for England a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism” — a reference to English settlers who were sent to Northern Ireland in what became known as the “plantation of Ulster.”

Maurice Cohen, the chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, said in an interview that public sentiment in Ireland had initially supported Jewish efforts to create a state of Israel and the struggle against British rule — a fact that he said was often overlooked in modern Ireland.

“Maybe because we have always felt that we are the underdogs here, so we are always rooting for the underdog,” said Mr. Cohen, 73. “When I was growing up, there was always a great affinity to the Israelis, because they were deemed to be the underdog as well.”

Yet that support later shifted toward the Palestinian cause, he said, amid rising criticism of the Israeli state’s expansion of settlements and the displacement of Palestinian communities.

Ireland has a small Jewish population of about 2,700, according to 2023 statistics, out of a total population of 5.3 million. And Mr. Cohen said that while antisemitic rhetoric online had risen since the Hamas-Israel conflict began, that had not spilled over into major violence in Ireland. In addition, although he mourned that the conversation about the current conflict had lost depth and nuance, he said that the leaders of all of the country’s political parties had assured him “that they will not brook any antisemitism in Ireland.”

Yet even as Ireland, like the rest of Europe, has for decades favored a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and engaged with leaders from both sides, its relations with Israel have soured in the weeks since Oct. 7.

On Sunday, Israel summoned the Irish ambassador for a rebuke over a post by Mr. Varadkar on the social media platform X in which he described the release of a young Israeli-Irish hostage as “an innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned.”

Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, suggested on X that the Irish prime minister was seeking to disguise the truth about Hamas’s hostage-taking and had lost his “moral compass.”

Many Irish commentators pointed out that Mr. Varadkar’s language was metaphorical and echoed biblical references to being lost and found.

In an interview with Ireland’s public broadcaster on Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog of Israel, whose grandfather was Ireland’s chief rabbi, said he disagreed with the foreign minister’s criticism of Mr. Varadkar, but also questioned what he called Ireland’s “indifference to the pain endured by Israelis.”

For some who lived through the late-20th-century conflict in Northern Ireland, the war in Gaza calls to mind the trauma of the past but also the possibility of hope. Less than a week after the Hamas attacks, Patrick Kielty, who hosts “The Late Late Show,” the Friday night Irish television staple, offered a message to “all the families whose lives this week have been ripped apart in Israel and Palestine.”

Mr. Kielty grew up in Northern Ireland and his father was killed in 1988 by a paramilitary group that supported the territory’s ties to Britain. “There were days when we thought it would never end,” he told the audience.

“We are currently living our own miracle on this island, because we are living in peace,” Mr. Kielty added. “For all those in Israel and Palestine tonight, it might not seem like it, but there’s always hope, and we hope that your miracle comes soon.”

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