Ireland’s post-colonial identity crisis and Gaza

In Ireland, support for the Palestinian liberation struggle has always been mainstream and strong, even if it has never been as vocal and visible as it has been since October 7. This is likely the product of a shared history of settler colonisation. After all, the apparatus of occupation – armed military patrols on city streets, military checkpoints, segregated cities and separation walls – that shape daily life today in occupied Palestine is almost identical to the one once utilised by the British in Northern Ireland. In fact, Britain’s settler colonial strategies in Ireland, as argued by Rashid Khalidi among others, are believed to have served as a blueprint for the Israeli occupation. This is why the people of Ireland widely identify with and eagerly support the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation and oppression.

While it is clear with whom the Irish people’s allegiance lies, the same cannot be said about that of the country’s political representatives.

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins has been a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights for many years, and since October 7 has been unequivocal in calling for a permanent ceasefire. His role, however, is mostly symbolic and he cannot compel the government to act.

The messages coming from the Dail (Irish parliament) and our current heads of government since October 7 have been mixed. On the one hand, our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Micheal Martin were quicker than other European leaders to denounce the escalating violence in Palestine and call for a ceasefire. They also denounced the EU’s double standards towards Palestine.

Ireland’s official international development aid programme, Irish Aid, is a long-term donor to UNRWA, the UN’s humanitarian agency for Palestinian refugees, and has also supported other local and international human rights and development organisations working in Palestine over the years. In response to a recent decision by the US, UK and several other governments to suspend funding to UNRWA, Ireland has reiterated its commitment to supporting the agency.

The Irish government has also voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolutions for a humanitarian truce in October and a ceasefire in December of 2023.

Beyond resisting demands to suspend aid and supporting calls for a ceasefire, however, Ireland’s leaders took little action that could lead to material changes on the ground in Palestine.

The Occupied Territories Bill, which would prohibit the import of Israeli goods produced in illegal settlements in the West Bank to Ireland, has stalled in the Dail for years despite significant support from Palestinian solidarity groups and NGOs. Further motions put to the Dail since October 2023 by opposition parties to cut diplomatic ties with and impose economic sanctions on Israel have been voted down without any alternative proposals from the governing parties.

The government has refused to follow the example of countries, such as South Africa and Bolivia, who moved to cut, or at least suspend, diplomatic ties with Israel. They also opposed the calls to exclude Israel from this year’s Eurovision song contest.

The taoiseach initially appeared sceptical about the merit of the genocide case South Africa has launched against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). He cautioned against the use of the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza and said Ireland would not intervene in the case as it did in the Ukrainian case against Russia. Following the ICJ’s ruling on provisional measures on January 26, the Irish government altered its stance and announced that it is considering a possible intervention. Presenting an argument at a separate ICJ hearing on the legal consequences of Israeli occupation, Ireland denounced Israel’s excessive use of force since October 7, but stopped short of calling it a genocide.

The failure to apply the same coercive measures against Israel in response to its war on Gaza as those urgently and without hesitation imposed upon Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine is a glaring example of the West’s hypocrisy and wilful undermining of international law to protect its allies. In Ireland’s case, it is also in direct opposition to popular sentiment and speaks to the political elites’ continuing allegiance to empire.

For a nation that still defines itself through a lens of colonial sufferance and victimhood, and takes pride in its armed independence struggle against the British Empire, any contemporary alliance with, or dependency on, imperial power is problematic, and inevitably harms efforts to show solidarity with people still resisting colonial oppression, such as the Palestinians.

The most obvious source of Ireland’s inability to assume a more principled position on Israel-Palestine is its continued economic dependency on the UK, US and Europe. As a small island nation on the edge of Europe, Ireland relies on foreign direct investment from multinational corporations for its economic survival, which severely hinders its ability to take any meaningful stance against empire on the global stage.

However, the limits of Ireland’s support for Palestine are not defined solely by the contemporary demands of capital. There is also another, much more complicated and deep-seated obstacle to genuine solidarity with other colonised peoples: An identity crisis stemming from Ireland’s peculiar process of racialisation, and its long history of complicity with and participation in European imperialism across the Global South.

This identity crisis is most evident in the country’s contradictory stance on migration. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Ireland has been festering for at least two decades and has reached violent extremes over the last two years. Successive governments have actively fed into alarmist narratives about the influx of so-called “economic migrants”, sought to limit their access to citizenship through constitutional reform in 2004, and turned a blind eye to the growth and activities of far-right movements that actively target refugee and migrant communities of colour with violence.

The irony is that for two centuries Ireland’s greatest export has been people, most of whom were “economic migrants” eager to escape the crushing poverty and lack of employment, housing and opportunities. These migrants embarked on their journeys with an ease rarely granted to migrants from the Global South, to pursue a better life in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere.

Despite being branded “inferior whites” and facing considerable discrimination as a result, overall, Irish migrants absorbed and benefitted from the predominant white supremacist discourse and laws in Anglophone territories. Juxtaposed with racialised others in these territories – be they Indigenous, native or enslaved peoples – the Irish were seen a in all cases as fully human and benefitted from the citizenship rights that other racialised groups were denied well into the 20th century. Over time, white Irish migrants assimilated successfully into settler societies actively participated in settler colonial projects that resulted in the mass displacement and dispossession of Indigenous and First Nations peoples from their ancestral territories.

More controversial still, are the Irish connections with the Caribbean world of the Atlantic Slave Trade, where the Irish benefitted as traders, plantation owners and enslavers. Increasing archival work is being done to trace these connections but the information and debate are too often confined to academia and rarely make it into popular media.

Even as Ireland stood as a beacon of hope for anti-imperial struggles in the early 20th century, Irish leaders mobilised the nation’s whiteness to set it apart from other colonised nations as “deserving” of independence and capable of self-governance. In later years, as Ireland started to emerge on the world stage as a prosperous European nation, other post-colonial nations’ struggles with economic development – regularly attributed to their “lazy” and/or “corrupt” government or populace rather than the embedded imperial injustices of the economic world order – served to reinforce the Irish perception that it is a racially superior nation.

Today, a few historians and independent scholars, such as Liam Hogan, are actively interrogating Irish whiteness, discussing Irish complicity in the slave trade on social media, and starting much-needed conversations about Ireland’s history and identity. They are also countering the Irish slave meme mobilised across the internet by white supremacists to delegitimise demands for slavery reparations in the US. Ebun Joseph has also supported engagement with contemporary questions of race in Ireland that account for the complexities of colonial history through popular media and public anti-racism work. Nevertheless, these efforts so far do not prove sufficient in addressing Ireland’s post-colonial identity crisis and its consequences on the nation’s engagement with other peoples still suffering under imperial occupation.

South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ has widely been interpreted as an effort by emerging Global South powers to challenge the double standards and the imperial order of international law. Ireland’s political and economic elites have hardly dared to do anything other than taking the mildest stance against genocide.

It is disappointing to see how they have chosen, once again, to fall in line with and emulate Ireland’s former masters and current hegemons – the US and the UK – rather than forge genuine solidarity with other post-colonial nations in the Global South who have been among the most decisive in taking action against Israel’s genocide and project of settler colonialism in Palestine. The question we now face is how long will they continue to do so when confronted daily with the undeniable atrocities being committed in Gaza and the West Bank, and growing public demand for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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