The video clips have pinged around the world on social media eliciting applause, anger and a puzzled question: why are Irish politicians so outspoken about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza?
The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, described the assault as “approaching revenge”, the foreign minister, Micheál Martin, called it “disproportionate” and opposition politicians went much further in calling it mass murder. Some wore the keffiyeh in parliament.
Pro-Palestinian commentators have hailed the statements as an example to the rest of Europe on how to denounce an offensive that has reportedly killed more than 11,000 people.
Pro-Israelis have called Ireland’s responses blinkered and a negation of Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped more than 240 in southern Israel on 7 October.
Israel’s heritage minister, Amichai Eliyahu, urged Palestinians to “go to Ireland or the desert”. Israel’s government disowned his suggestion, but the outburst underscored a perception that Ireland is an outlier in the European Union.
There have been pro-Palestinian marches across Ireland and opposition parties have tried – but failed – to compel the government to refer Israel to the international criminal court and expel Israel’s ambassador, Dana Erlich. More than 600 academics signed a letter urging universities to sever institutional links with Israeli institutions.
“Irish people are passionate about Palestine, they really understand what’s happening,” Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, said in an interview at her mission’s office in Dublin. “I’m privileged to be here.”
She lauded the government’s campaign for a ceasefire and said she had been honoured by a rapturous ovation at a Sinn Féin party conference, where delegates chanted “free Palestine”. Palestinians were sharing clips of Irish legislators backing their cause, said Abdalmajid. “They see the support.”
Sympathy for Palestinians is rooted in Ireland’s history, said Niall Holohan, a retired diplomat who was based in Ramallah from 2002-2006 as the Irish government’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. “We feel we have been victimised over the centuries. It’s part of our psyche – underneath it all we side with the underdog.”
Jane Ohlmeyer, a Trinity College Dublin history professor and the author of Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism, and the Early Modern World, said Ireland had been Britain’s oldest colony and a template for Palestine. “This has undoubtedly shaped how people from Ireland engage with postcolonial conflicts.”
Even before the latest conflict, parts of Northern Ireland were using proxy tribal identifications – Israeli flags for loyalist areas and Palestinian iconography for republican areas.
Another factor in Ireland’s outlook has been its tiny community of approximately 2,500 Jews – barely 0.05% – that contrasts with sizeable and influential Jewish communities in Britain and France, said Holohan. “It’s given us a freer hand to take what we consider a more principled position.”
Ireland was the first EU state to endorse Palestinian statehood – in 1980 – and the first last month to publicly denounce the Hungarian commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, after he unilaterally announced on social media that all funding for Paletinians would be suspended. Varadkar also accused Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s pro-Israel president, of “lacking balance”.
Ireland got public support from Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s outgoing foreign minister. He told reporters this week, before his last ministers’ summit in Brussels, that for the past decade EU member states “didn’t give a fuck” about Palestinian statehood – with two exceptions. “There were two countries here that tried to put it on the agenda, me and the Irish.”
Ireland strives to nudge the EU towards “a more just” position but avoids solo runs, said Holohan, who noted that France and other members had echoed its call for a ceasefire. “We want to remain within the European consensus.”
On Thursday Martin, the foreign minister, visited a kibbutz that was targeted on 7 October and met Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He called the Hamas attack “savage” and reiterated a plea for a ceasefire in Gaza, saying Israel’s belief in a military solution was mistaken.
Ireland’s underdog impulse originally resulted in support for the Jewish quest for an embryonic nation state – a sentiment reciprocated by the Zionist Irgun movement that drew on the experience of Irish rebels when it fought the British occupation of Palestine in the 1940s.
“It has morphed into the narrative that while the Irish fought to remove the occupiers so, too, are the Palestinians trying to remove the ‘occupiers’,” said Maurice Cohen, chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland. He said people forgot that the former Israeli president Chaim Herzog – father of the current president, Isaac Herzog – was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin.
Antisemitism was proliferating on social media and condemnation of Hamas atrocities tended to be perfunctory – “a collective ‘selective amnesia’ to October 7 appears to have set in”, said Cohen. “Most concerning is the surreptitious shunning and remarks and collective blame in the workplace where there are Jewish people and Israelis present.”
Holohan, the retired diplomat, said Irish people had a blind spot about Hamas, which he called a repressive and extremist Islamist organisation. “They simply don’t know enough about it.”
Cieren Perry, a councillor who sponsored a failed motion to fly a Palestinian flag over Dublin city hall, said he hoped outrage over Gaza’s suffering would force the Irish government to send stronger signals to Washington and Brussels. “It’s mad, mind-boggling, to think there are people not calling for a ceasefire.”