As the world scrambled to respond to Israel's deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, the first reaction came from an unlikely source: Ireland. On the morning of June 5, the MV Rachel Corrie, which had set sail from the east coast of Ireland in an attempt to breach the Gaza blockade, was intercepted by Israeli forces. The vessel's Irish passengers included Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
The ill-tempered diplomatic spat between the Irish and Israeli governments that accompanied the Rachel Corrie's journey to Gaza is just the latest episode in the countries' long history of antagonistic relations. Tensions recently escalated again with the Irish expulsion of an Israeli diplomat amid Irish anger over Israel's alleged use of eight forged Irish passports in the recent murder of a Hamas official in Dubai.
The Palestinian issue has long occupied a place in the Irish consciousness far greater than geographic, economic, or political considerations appear to merit. Perceived parallels with the Irish national experience, however, have inspired an emotional connection with Palestine that has inspired Irish activism in the region up to the present day.
At first, in the 1920s and 1930s, Irish sympathies lay squarely with the Zionists and drew heavily on the presumed parallels between historic Irish and Jewish suffering, as well as the shared traumatic experience of large-scale migration in the 19th century.
Drawing a parallel with their own history of occupation, the Irish also championed the Zionist struggle for self-determination against the British. A correspondent to The Bell, a leading Irish magazine, raged over current events in Mandate Palestine in March 1945: "Never let it be forgotten that the Irish people ... have experienced all that the Jewish people in Palestine are suffering from the trained 'thugs' 'gunning tarzans' and British 'terrorists' that the Mandatory power have imposed upon the country."
But Irish nationalist perceptions toward Israel soon shifted. The country's own anti-British rebellion led to a traumatic civil war that left six northern counties of the island under the British crown. Once the Zionist movement accepted the partition of Palestine, the Irish began to draw unflattering parallels between Israeli policies and their own divided existence. To many, the Jewish state now looked less like a besieged religious-national community struggling valiantly for its natural rights and more like a colony illegitimately established by British force of arms and intent on imposing itself on an indigenous population.
The renowned Irish novelist Sean O'Faolain, writing in November 1947 as the United Nations debated a partition plan for Mandate Palestine, expressed this sentiment when he rejected the comparison between the Irish and Zionist struggles: "if we could imagine that Ireland was being transformed by Britain into a national home for the Jews, I can hardly doubt which side you would be found."
Not even the successful Zionist military struggle against the British in the late 1940s did much to alter the view that Israel was "a little loyal Jewish Ulster," in the words of Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem. Like Ulster, the northern province of Ireland under British control that was seen as a bulwark against Irish nationalism, Israel appeared designed to hold back the tide of Arab nationalism.
The "Vatican factor," as the writer and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien liked to call the Catholic Church's influence over Irish social and political life, also affected Irish perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October 1948, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical, In Multiplicibus Curis, endorsing an "international character" to Jerusalem and its vicinity. From that time, the Irish government adopted the Vatican's concern for the status of Jerusalem's holy places and mirrored its call for international supervision of the city.