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Diarmaid Ferriter: Time for Ireland to recognise Palestine

Government has opportunity to take lead within EU on Palestinian question

A mural in Gaza City of Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, a wheelchair-bound Palestinian who was shot dead in clashes between Israeli forces and protesters along the Gaza-Israel border in December. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Predictably, US president Donald Trump began the new year as he finished the old; full of bile, bluster and bullying tweets. The Palestinian Authority, he claimed earlier this week, had taken “hundreds of millions of dollars” in assistance from the United States while showing “no appreciation or respect”. Having recently declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and thus deliberately stoked the fires of enmity, he now decries the Palestinians as “no longer willing to talk peace”. Trump’s interventions have had nothing to do with peace in that region and are solely about satisfying his domestic agenda.

Just before Christmas, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid a visit to Irish peacekeeping troops in south Lebanon and criticised Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as a “misstep” and the “wrong long-term decision”. This was in line with the United Nations vote to condemn the US action, but is this the best that Varadkar and his Government can do? The Government has deliberately tiptoed around the issue of recognition of Palestine as a state; according to Varadkar, the Government is “open” to this recognition but only as part of an European Union-wide agreement, and “conditions at the moment aren’t right”.

Lasting settlement

This response smacks of convenience. Given Ireland’s long-term engagement with this question, is there not now an opportunity for the Government to give a lead within the EU? The 2016 programme for government states that the Government will “honour our commitment to recognise the state of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict”. It seems that instead of being proactive about this, the Government will justify inaction by claiming the time is not right on the basis of the caveat “part of a lasting settlement”.

There are a number of reasons why Irish leadership on this question is justified. Ireland was the first country in the EU to call for the creation of the Palestinian state and more than three years ago the Dáil agreed a motion to “officially recognise the state of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, as established in UN resolutions, as a further positive contribution to securing a negotiated two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestine conflict”.

Exactly 50 years ago, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, President Éamon de Valera spoke to the heads of the diplomatic corps of 19 nations at Áras an Uachtaráin and referred to Ireland’s foreign policy and to the causes “we give support to correct injustice” which sometimes “does incur the displeasure of one side or the other and sometimes both. This is natural and is one of the prices we have to pay for an impartial advocacy of justice in international affairs.”

It would be naive to take at face value the claims about a consistent Irish purity and morality in foreign affairs. In the 1920s and 1930s there was considerable Irish sympathy for Zionist aspirations with parallels drawn between historic Irish and Jewish suffering and 19th-century migration and occupation, but subsequently there were particular reasons why the Irish preferred to empathise with the plight of the Palestinians, including a hostility to partition, the importance Ireland attached to the Holy Land and the desire to emphasise Ireland’s anti-colonial credentials. As Rory Miller put it in his 2005 book Ireland and the Palestine Question, even in the late 1940s “Palestine occupied a place in the Irish consciousness far greater than geographic, economic or political factors merited”.

Pressing objective

It was a subject minister for foreign affairs Frank Aiken devoted much time to in the 1960s; as he saw it in 1969, solving the problem of the Palestinian Arab refugees was “the main and most pressing objective” of Ireland’s Middle-East policy; nor did Aiken show any inclination to cower in the face of US displeasure in his pursuit of an independent foreign policy.

By 1980 minister for foreign affairs Brian Lenihan recognised “the role of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in representing the Palestinian people” and called for the “withdrawal of Israel from all territory occupied since the 1967 conflict”. This became the basis for the EEC’s Venice declaration later that year, the first declaration by the community that included specific support for Palestinian “self-determination”, a move that enraged Israel.

Ireland was also the last EU member to allow Israel to open a residential embassy, in 1993. Subsequent Irish rhetoric about defending Palestinian rights continued while at the same time it signed up to weaker collective EU submissions on the issue, though as minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen visited Yasser Arafat during the height of the second intifada in June 2003

Recognition of Palestine is not just about rectifying historic injustice; it also provides the best means of ensuring the long-term peace and security of both Israel and Palestine and that is even more important now given recent provocations. The Government can and should do a lot more than just tamely rebuke Trump.