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Why are Irish republicans so anti-Israel?

Sinn Féin's 'pro-Palestine' posturing is a grotesque betrayal of its own political tradition.

Iain Fitzsimons

Topics Politics World

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On 9 May 1981, Irish republican Bobby Sands died on hunger strike at Maze prison in Northern Ireland. He and his nine comrades were protesting against their categorisation as criminals rather than ‘political prisoners’. They wanted to be recognised as soldiers fighting a war against the British state.

An army is bound by rules, perhaps even by a moral code. For Sands’ Irish Republican Army, part of this code meant trying to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. This imperative was acknowledged in a 2002 statement from the IRA apologising for causing civilian deaths: ‘While it was not our intention to injure or kill non-combatants, the reality is that… was the consequence of our actions.’

I bring this up today because Sinn Féin, which at one time was the IRA’s political wing, seems to have forgotten this imperative when it comes to Hamas. Just seven months ago, Hamas invaded Israel and embarked on a killing spree of such horror and indiscriminate barbarity that it continues to numb my mind. Hundreds of civilians were deliberately slaughtered. Yet Sinn Féin has continued to pledge its support for the ‘Palestinian cause’ – which, in Gaza, is represented by Hamas – through its monthly newspaper, An Phoblacht. There, it regularly re-affirms its commitment to ‘Palestine’ and talks robotically of ‘Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinian people’.

Not long after the 7 October attack, Sinn Féin MP John Finucane provided a telling indication of his party’s attitude towards Hamas and the war in Gaza on the BBC’s flagship debate show, Question Time. Hamas had just slain families living in kibbutzim, gunned down hundreds of festival-goers and slaughtered babies. But on this, not a word from Finucane. No acknowledgement that any ‘army’ with any sort of moral code might try its best to avoid ‘civilian casualties’, let alone seek them out and rejoice in their slaughter.

Finucane, like too many others in Sinn Féin, seems wilfully ignorant of the reality of Hamas. Perhaps he should check out Amnesty International’s reports on life in Gaza under Hamas. It metes out beatings and death to dissenters, oppresses women and kills homosexuals. Who are the ‘Palestinian people’ that Sinn Féin and the broader nationalist community is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with? It’s clearly not those who suffer under the very Hamas regime Sinn Féin finds it so difficult to criticise.

The heroes of Ireland’s republican tradition, like Bobby Sands, must be turning in their graves at the ‘pro-Palestine’ posturing of today’s republicans and the broader left. Think in particular of those women, from Constance Markievicz to Mairead Farrell, who played such a significant role in the Irish liberation struggle. I wonder what they would have made of Hamas’s actions on 7 October. What would they have thought of Irish republicans if they had behaved as Hamas did – if they had raped and murdered protestant women before parading their bodies down the Falls Road in Belfast for a baying mob to denigrate and spit at? Would they, as so many on the left in Ireland now do, view this as part of the ‘resistance’?

Not that this would ever have happened, of course. Irish republicans were from their community, and were accountable to their community. Such a sadistic disregard for human life would never have been tolerated. Hamas, however, is not accountable to anyone. It represses and controls its ‘community’ through violence, terror and intimidation.

None of this seems to cross the minds of the heirs to the republican tradition today. On St Patrick’s Day, a high-level Sinn Féin delegation met President Biden in Washington, and urged him to pressure Israel into calling a ‘ceasefire’. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also boasted of her ‘strong commitment to freedom for Palestine and self-determination’. There was no sense she recognised Israel’s right to self-determination or indeed right to exist.

Michael Davitt (1846-1906), another revered figure from Irish nationalist history, offers a valuable counterpoint to the rampant anti-Israel sentiments of Sinn Féin today. A campaigner for Irish independence and land reform, he compared the plight of Jews in Tsarist Russia with that of the Irish living under British imperialism. Davitt argued that in order to be free from constant persecution, Jews as a people needed a homeland, a sovereign nation. One that they ought to be free to defend. He supported the Jews as an Irish republican and as a democrat. In Within the Pale, his 1903 book on anti-Semitism in Russia, he wrote: ‘I have come from a journey through the Jewish Pale, a convinced believer in the remedy of Zionism.’

Davitt’s position would be anathema to many in and around Sinn Féin now. They have embraced the tired and lazy characterisation of Israel as a settler-colonialist state. But this is simply not true. Much like Ireland, Palestine was controlled by Britain in the early 20th century. Palestinian Jews (alongside European and American Jews) conducted a guerrilla campaign of armed resistance to British rule. They shared much with Irish republicans. Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, a member of paramilitary group Irgun, even adopted the undercover name ‘Michael’, a reference to leading Irish republican Michael Collins. Shamir saw a clear and obvious link between the Irish and Zionist causes. The state of Israel was fought for through diplomacy, armed struggle and sacrifice. If anything, Israel is a post-colonial nation, not a colonialist state.

Like Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were also ‘granted’ statehood in the first half of the 20th century. The borders of those countries were as arbitrary as Israel’s. Yet they are universally considered ‘legitimate’ and their sovereignty is rarely challenged. Certainly no one questions Jordan’s or Lebanon’s right to exist.

It seems that today’s Irish republicans and the left more broadly are betraying the tradition of Sands, Farrell and Davitt. This is a travesty. We need to stop the blinkered and irrational demonisation of Israel – and we certainly need to stop turning those who intend to destroy Israel and the Jewish people into heroes.

Iain Fitzsimons is a veteran Irish-solidarity campaigner.

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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