The addition of Lord David Trimble, the former Northern Irish Unionist leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the conflict in that province, to the Israeli commission investigating the Gaza flotilla controversy appears to illustrate the fault lines that have developed in Europe, and especially in Ireland, about the Middle East. As Robert Mackey writes in the New York Times blog, the Lede, Trimble’s inclusion in the inquiry has been greeted with dismay in Ireland because the country appears to be a stronghold for anti-Israel sentiment.
Part of the problem is that Trimble recently joined with other major figures including former American UN ambassador John Bolton and British historian Andrew Roberts (both COMMENTARY contributors) and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in a group that seeks to defend Israel’s right to exist within defensible borders. That articulating such a stand is considered controversial speaks volumes about just how virulent the spirit of anti-Zionism is in Europe. Regarding Ireland, Mackey quotes some commentators who allude to a tradition of support for Israel on the part of Ulster Protestants while Catholics in the North as well as in the Irish Republic in the South appear to favor the Palestinians. Ireland, the place where the term boycott was coined during the struggle against the British, has seen a number of attempts to stigmatize Israel and even, in a bit of historical irony, the boycotting of Israeli potatoes.
Why is this so? Last week Senator Feargal Quinn, an Independent and the lone supporter of Israel in the Irish Senate, told the BBC that Irish anti-Semitism was a major factor behind the anti-Israel incitement that has become standard fare in his country.
But the explanation also has to do with the fact that in the postwar era, Irish insurgents came to see themselves as part of a global Marxist revolutionary camp rather than as part of a Western revolutionary tradition that looked to America as its model. Indeed, a representative of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, the terrorist group that laid down its arms as a result of the peace that Trimble helped forge, denounced Trimble’s participation in what they assumed would be a whitewash of international piracy.
Ironically, there was a time when Jews who were fighting the British to create a Jewish state in Palestine looked to Ireland for examples of how to fight for freedom. Menachem Begin, who led the pre-state Irgun underground for decades before becoming Israel’s prime minister, specifically took the IRA (the version that fought the British on behalf of a democratically-elected Irish Parliament, not the Marxist version) as his role model. Indeed, another Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, took the name “Michael” as his code name during his time in the anti-British underground in honor of Michael Collins.
And therein hangs the difference between Ireland’s struggle and that of the Palestinians.
Michael Collins, who led the IRA against the Brits during the 1918-1922 “Black and Tan War,” accepted partition of the country as the price of peace and Irish independence in the South. He paid for this with his life when IRA extremists assassinated him. But the peace he made stood the test of time. By contrast, the Palestinians, who are cheered in the Irish Republic, whose independence was bought with Collins’s blood, have consistently refused to accept a partition of the country or to make peace with Israel under any circumstances. Unlike Irish nationalists, who didn’t want to destroy Britain but just wanted to make it leave Ireland, the Palestinians are not fighting so much for their own independence (which they could have had at any time in the last 63 years, had they wanted it) but to eradicate Israel. It’s sad that the Irish identification with the Palestinian “underdog” has left the Irish indifferent to the rights of another people — the Jews — who, like the Irish, sought to revive their ancient culture, language, and identity, while living in freedom in their homeland.