How Gaza and the Israel-Hamas conflict is stirring tensions in Irish politics

Government’s concern over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza growing while the crisis has been tricky for Sinn Féin

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. The Taoiseach has said Israel’s response in Gaza resembles something “approaching revenge”. Illustration: Paul Scott

The crisis in the Middle East has left Irish politics grappling with a patchwork of problems as parties and politicians walk a tightrope of domestic and foreign policy concerns.

First, the crisis has taken centre stage domestically in a way that foreign stories rarely do.

In a narrow political sense, similarly to the Covid and the cost of living crises, the Government’s response has not left much angle of attack for the opposition on the main thrust of policy. Criticism, however loud it is, is around the edge, not at the core.

The constant calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador are a case in point. If the Coalition ignored calls from its own backbenchers to expel Russian ambassador Yury Filatov following the Ukraine invasion, it is hardly going to pay heed to the opposition when it comes to the future of Israel’s envoy Dana Erlich.


In truth, the crisis has been tricky for Sinn Féin in many ways, given their past interactions with Hamas. Notwithstanding the leadership’s condemnation of the attack, senior TDs have been forced to commit to not repeating invitations to Hamas spokespersons to speak at their events, as happened in 2020.

A U-turn on calling for Erlich’s suspension was explained as a reaction to the deteriorating situation in Gaza, but came after weeks of bombardment and thousands of deaths. The backdrop is pressure on its own left flank.

Much focus will come on its response to a People Before Profit (PBP) motion calling again for Erlich’s expulsion and the referral of Israel’s political and military leadership to the International Criminal Court with no mention of the Hamas raid. Sinn Féin will have to keep one eye on where it ends up, and whether it could transpose its positions into Government – or whether potential Coalition partners would accept them.

Beyond Irish shores, the Government and the State face more complex problems in trying to balance crisis management with longer-term constancy in foreign policy amid volatility and shifting geopolitical sands.

Ireland sees the current conflict as a massive step change in the region, with official concerns over Israel’s tactics – the massive bombardment of Gaza – and its overall strategy; Hamas, sources say, cannot be simply destroyed militarily and will remain as a political and ideological entity.

One short-term objective is to secure safe passage from Gaza for those 40 or so Irish citizens stranded in Gaza, referred to by PBP TD Paul Murphy as being effectively “held hostage” in retribution for Ireland supporting a vote for a ceasefire in the UN.

There is a palpable nervousness in Government circles on this point. The Tánaiste was at pains to emphasise that there has been “no evidence” of this, but nonetheless, some in Government privately wonder why Ireland is among a subset of EU countries whose citizens have not been put on a list, which the Government believes is effectively controlled by Israel (the number circulating in Government is 11 member states). Even if Ireland is not being punished, it may feel like we are, which carries its own political weight.

Another issue is the release of Irish citizen Emily Hand, the eight-year-old girl now thought to have been taken hostage by Hamas and held in Gaza. Her fate has itself become an element of wider diplomatic backchanneling, with the Israeli embassy seeking to arrange contacts between the Irish political system and the Hand family.

In these cases, there is a closely guarded omerta on details. It comes against a well-established backdrop where many players see Ireland as being sympathetic to the Palestinian people rather than Israel.

“On each occasion I met Mahmoud Abbas [the leader of the Palestinian Authority] in Ramallah, he opened conversations by expressing a deep sense of appreciation for what Ireland is doing,” recalled Charlie Flanagan, the former minister for foreign affairs and chair of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee, last week. In Tel Aviv, he says, “there is a sense that Ireland is among the least sympathetic to the Israeli cause in the EU”.

There is certainly an absence of a large pro-Israeli contingent in Irish politics or the wider population; polling for last week’s Sunday Independent showed just 10 per cent sympathised more with the Israelis than the Palestine. This, some believe, frees up Irish political leaders.

Citing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s contention that Israel’s response resembles something “approaching revenge”, Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward said: “There are countries around Europe who are pausing for thought because of what Leo has said . . . we are showing the way to other European countries who have a difficulty in facing this head on.”

Ireland is traditionally part of a caucus in Europe including France, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Slovenia, but in recent years, insiders say Ireland, the Belgians and Luxembourg have ploughed a lonely furrow. The EU itself is deeply split, with Austria, Hungary, Czechia and others in a very hardline space.

At EU level, Ireland sees more countries potentially coming closer to its view as the bombardment continues. Sources believe the bombing will continue at least into December, and possibly into the new year, with Israel yet to achieve many of its military aims in Northern Gaza. The Government’s overarching aim is to convince more member states to toughen up their language on the need for a ceasefire.

Some believe there could be an underlying risk to Ireland’s foreign direct investment (FDI) model. Corporate America has been straightforwardly pro-Israel since October 7th. While there is no outward sign of this as of yet, experienced hands say there have been times in the past when US business concerns have put a shot across the bows of the Irish Government on the Israel-Palestine question.

Varadkar is said to have acknowledged this during a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party two weeks ago, telling members that statements which are critical of Israel can impact US attitudes towards Ireland.

Despite that remark, the following week, he made his “revenge” comments on a trip to Korea. Allies of the Taoiseach point out this follows the language used by Israel itself, where Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu has promised “mighty vengeance”, but the stated position shows Ireland’s place in the spectrum of western countries.

Government insiders strongly reject any suggestion that Ireland could follow the lead of the Belgian deputy prime minister who last week called for sanctions on Israel.

Senior Government sources emphasised last week that Ireland would only act multilaterally, if at all, with solo runs dismissed as something Israel wouldn’t care about or notice, and which would only serve to isolate Ireland. This was described as “silly talk” by one senior figure. There is seen to be no chance of EU sanctions on Israel and therefore no chance of Ireland going down that route.

Varadkar did tell a conference on Gaza in Paris last Thursday that failure to observe humanitarian law on any side “can’t be inconsequential forever” – said by insiders to be a nod towards the International Criminal Court’s potential role investigating war crimes.

Government figures and officials fear a spiralling regional conflict and heightened risk of terror attacks on European capitals, the near total collapse of humanitarian provision in Gaza, as well as a potentially chaotic post-conflict period reminiscent of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Bobby McDonagh – a former senior mandarin in the Department of Foreign Affairs and ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome – Ireland’s capacity is limited, but should focus on multilateralism.

“We can’t change the world, we never could and we never can, but we can try and nudge it along,” he said.