Misunderstandings abound on both sides of the Ireland-Israel relationship. The ones that bedevil the Irish conception of Israel and its historic conflict with the Arabs have recently received a lot of publicity, but they are not the subject of this piece; rather, I will focus on those that work in the opposite direction. From a reading of comments on recent items in the Israeli press concerning Ireland, it seems that many Israelis have an utterly simplistic interpretation of Irish history, much of it apparently founded on a set of recycled myths circulated in the past decade by retired Provisional IRA activists seeking to justify their failed 28-year war against the Northern Ireland state. The following points are offered to help to correct some of the more frequently occurring misconceptions.
1. The idea of 800 years of British oppression in Ireland is nonsense. An English colonial project did begin in the mid-16th century and was successful within a century. Before that, successive waves of Viking and Anglo-Norman colonists were absorbed into a primitive Irish polity of ceaseless inter-tribal warfare.
2. Modern Irish nationalism dates from the late 18th century and originated in the Protestant Anglo-Irish colony at a time when the Gaelic-speaking Catholic population suffered religious oppression but was largely pre-modern and pre-political.
3. Catholic nationalism developed in the 19th century; its majority strand up to 1916 sought autonomy for Ireland by peaceful constitutional methods. Actively violent separatism was always a minority trend. By 1914, the British Liberal Government had legislated Home Rule (autonomy) for Ireland within the British Empire.
4. Two things prevented the enactment of Home Rule immediately: the onset of the Great War and the militant opposition of the 1 million-strong mainly Protestant unionist community in the north-east province, Ulster, to the prospect of rule by a Catholic-dominated Home Rule parliament in Dublin. Unionists wished to keep their UK citizenship and feared further separation would follow Home Rule. With the question of partition of the island unresolved, the Home Rule Act was suspended for the Great War’s duration.
5. Most Irish people in 1916 did not support the Easter Rebellion, which aimed at a radical separation of all Ireland from the UK. The vast majority of nationalists were appalled by the unmandated action of a tiny minority of extremists. Only the emotions aroused by the executions of 15 insurrection leaders led to enhanced support for separatism and to violent warfare in 1919-21, while the absence of agreement between nationalism and unionism led to imposed partition.
6. Between 1922 and 1998, the population of independent Ireland did not support IRA guerrilla campaigns in Northern Ireland seeking a united Ireland. Neither did it consider itself to be in a state of war with the UK, however much it resented what it considered the loss of national territory through partition. Vast numbers of Irish people found work and made homes in the UK during those decades. During the 1940s and ’50s IRA campaigns, De Valera, the most nationalist of Irish leaders, interned without trial members of the IRA arrested south of the border, allowed them to die on hunger strike and even executed some. During the IRA’s 1970-98 war, most Irish people were appalled by the sectarian atrocities on both sides and simply wanted the conflict, and if possible the province itself, to disappear.
7. Saying that the IRA is not analogous to Hamas because it did not seek the destruction of Britain is beside the point. It did seek by violence the end of a separate N. Ireland polity and its unification with the south, thereby denying the right to self-determination of the Ulster Protestant people (that right being exercised to stay as UK citizens) just as Palestinian would-be destroyers of Israel deny that right to the Jewish people.
8. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was in part a face-saving recognition by the IRA that its 28-year war had failed, in return for nationalist-unionist power-sharing and parity of esteem in a NI within the UK, something the IRA had rejected when offered 25 years earlier. The southern contribution? For the sake of peace 94.4% of the Republic’s electors (on an 88% turnout) voted to remove the constitutional clauses laying claim to Northern Ireland’s territory (to be replaced with an aspirational clause looking to all-island unity by consent), thereby effectively accepting the right of Ulster Protestants to self-determination.
9. It is not difficult to understand why N. Ireland’s unionists should be sympathetic to the Jewish state. The strongly Biblical basis of Ulster Protestant religious culture gives one clue. Beyond that, both peoples see themselves as small beleaguered nations surrounded, in one case, by 300 million Arab Muslims, in the other, by a nationalist majority on the island and a huge Irish-American diaspora with great political weight. Neither feels it can expect much from an uncomprehending international opinion that thinks it has found the ‘underdog’ in each case and awards its sympathy accordingly.
10. One of the best Irish writers and intellectuals of the 20th century wrote one of the best books about Northern Ireland and also one of the best about Israel. Israelis who want to understand Ireland should read the scholar-diplomat-politician Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland (1972). And those wishing to discover in a foreigner a real empathy for the Jewish state and its predicament should open his The Siege (1986).