What to do about Palestine was the subject of regular discussions between high-ranking Irish and Vatican officials. Over dinner in Dublin in 1961, Con Cremin, a senior official in the Irish foreign ministry, advised his dinner guest, Israel's ambassador to Britain, Arthur Lourie, that the issue of the holy places "was a relevant factor" affecting Ireland's ties to Israel. "[I]t is a mistake to write off the Vatican position," Cremin continued, "by reference to what might to the normal person seem to be realism."
As a result, Ireland only extended de jure recognition to Israel in 1963, 15 years after its declaration of independence. By the late 1960s, Ireland was increasingly preoccupied with the fate of the Palestinian Arab refugees, whose numbers had swelled following the Six Day War in June 1967. Speaking in 1969 in the Dail, the lower house of the Irish parliament, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken described the settlement of this problem as the "main and most pressing objective" of Ireland's Middle East policy. By the time Aiken left office later that year, Irish policy was set in stone: There could be no peace without the repatriation of the maximum possible number of Palestinian refugees and full compensation, not merely resettlement, for the remainder.
After Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, successive governments in Dublin have taken the lead in championing the Palestinian cause within Europe. In February 1980, Ireland was the first EU member to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was also the last to allow Israel to open a residential embassy, in December 1993.
Israel has responded to this cold shoulder with anger and bewilderment. Speaking on Irish radio in 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin described Irish policy as tantamount to acceptance of the PLO's "right to destroy the Jewish state."
Clashes between Irish U.N. peacekeeping troops in Lebanon and the Israeli army and its proxy Christian militias between 1978 and 2000 made relations worse. Forty-five Irish soldiers died while serving the United Nations in Lebanon, and the Irish government blamed Israel directly or indirectly for at least 15 of those deaths, including the April 1980 kidnapping and execution of privates Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne by the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia allied with Israel. One Irish politician evoked the general anger when he admitted that he had lost much of his previous sympathy when Israel "commenced to use our volunteer soldiers as target practice."
Throughout the Oslo Accords era and the post-Oslo era, Irish governments continued to provide the Palestinian cause with valuable, if not unlimited, support. Speaking before the Foreign Policy Association in New York City in September 2000, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern explained that the "moral dimension" of international affairs was the "first and foremost" reason for Irish involvement. As citizens of a small, neutral country on the margins of Europe, the Irish public's primary interest in foreign affairs relates to international law, human rights, anti-imperialism, and a proud history of engagement with the United Nations. This worldview, combined with a healthy appetite for the freedom-fighter slogans and anti-colonial language that left previous generations weak at the knees, explains the ongoing attachment to the Palestinian "underdogs."
The Irish fixation with Palestine continued even after the optimism of the Oslo era was long past. In June 2003, Brian Cowen, then Ireland's foreign minister, visited Yasir Arafat during the height of the Second Intifada -- and even after Israel refused to host foreign dignitaries who met the Palestinian leader while visiting the region. Cowen's visit came at a time when terror was at an all-time high and when the U.S. government, a majority of Israelis, and significant sectors of the Palestinian population had lost faith in Arafat's capacity to lead the Palestinians to statehood. But Cowen spoke for many in Ireland when he described Arafat as "the symbol of the hope of self-determination of the Palestinian people" and praised him for his "outstanding work ... tenacity, and persistence."