Ireland has an image as Europe’s most pro-Palestinian country, but its government hasn’t been representing strong popular solidarity with the people of Gaza. They can change that by supporting South Africa’s International Court of Justice case against Israel.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressing the press at the European Council summit in Brussels, Belgium, on December 14, 2023. (Jonathan Raa / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As South Africa opened its genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the only Irish presence felt was that of the lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh. Laying bare the apocalyptic destruction that has been wrought on Palestinians in Gaza, Ní Ghrálaigh told the court, in unforgettable words, that Gazans were “broadcasting their own destruction in real time . . . in the desperate, so far vain hope that the world might do something.”

However, the Irish government has so far refused to legally intervene in or even informally support the South African case. The ruling coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party has previously attracted praise for its rhetorical condemnations of Israel, leading to exaggerated claims that Ireland is a uniquely pro-Palestinian voice on the European stage — an island of solidarity in an ocean of apathy.

Yet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that he was “a little bit uncomfortable” accusing Israel of genocide for historical reasons, despite the overwhelming evidence of intent from Israeli politicians and military officials presented by South Africa’s legal team at the ICJ. A group of opposition parties — Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, and People Before Profit — are advocating for Ireland to join South Africa’s historic filing.

They accuse Varadkar’s government of deference to Washington’s foreign policy objectives and double standards, especially since Ireland supported Ukraine’s case against Russia at the ICJ over its invasion in 2022. Under pressure from his critics, the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Micheál Martin, who is also the Irish foreign affairs minister, has pledged to conduct “a rigorous analysis of the multiple legal aspects” of South Africa’s case to the ICJ and did not rule out intervening to support it.

Ireland and Palestine

The opposition bloc channels a pro-Palestinian sentiment that is remarkably wide and deep in Ireland, part of a rich historical tradition of solidarity with Palestinians. Regular, well-attended protests have been held across the country, and 84 percent of Irish people already supported an immediate cease-fire by early November.

Seventy-one percent of Irish people agree that Israeli rule over the Palestinians is a form of apartheid.

A national march on January 13 in solidarity with Gaza was the largest to date. A recent opinion survey showed that 71 percent of Irish people agree that Israeli rule over the Palestinians is a form of apartheid, including the majority of those who support all three government parties. Yet despite the groundswell of fury and disgust with the Israeli killing machine, there is a gap between public support for Palestinians and the orientation of the coalition government.

The underlying assumption of the Irish government’s position on Palestine is that Israel, though it has the right to self-defense, has disproportionately targeted civilians in a campaign of collective punishment in which war crimes are likely to have been committed. The crisis, it believes, reinforces the urgency for European leaders to take seriously the revival of the two-state solution. Throughout the past few months, Varadkar and his Fianna Fáil coalition partner Micheál Martin have called on the European Union and other international actors to support a cease-fire in Gaza, although they have almost always qualified this as a “humanitarian ceasefire.”

So why has Ireland repeatedly been hailed as a uniquely powerful European voice for Palestinians? To put the Irish position in perspective, we should look at the comparatively more forceful interventions of other European states, most notably Spain and Belgium, both of which happen to be NATO members. As Irish Times reporter Naomi O’Leary has argued, Ireland’s stance is far from anomalous within the EU.

Given Ireland’s history of consistently, if tepidly, criticizing Israel — in 1980, it was the first European country to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state — it was unsurprising that Ireland would (unsuccessfully) push for the EU’s statement to include a call to avoid escalation after the October 7 attack. In this case, the Danish and Luxembourgish governments shared its objections.

A week later, the EU retracted an earlier announcement by a Hungarian EU commissioner that the bloc was suspending aid for Palestinians. Ireland had not been alone in challenging the surprise decision, which was also criticized by Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.

On October 27, there was a UN vote on whether to call for “an urgent, durable, and permanent humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.” Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain all voted in favor of the motion alongside Ireland. The Irish government has hardly been a lone warrior in issuing carefully worded statements of protest.

Diplomatic Nudges

By mid-October, the government had sharpened its criticisms of Israel after some initial prevarications. While Israel had a right to defend itself, the government said, the response could not be “disproportionate.” Varadkar accused Israel of engaging in “collective punishment” in cutting off power and water to Gaza, and promised that this view would be “brought to the table at European Union level” by his government.

On October 18, Ireland’s national parliament, the Dáil, voted for a humanitarian ceasefire by 122 votes to 14, becoming the first parliament in Europe to do so. The dissenting votes came not from supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu’s war on Gaza but rather from left-wing opposition members who felt that the wording of the motion was insufficiently critical of Israel. The Irish government also announced additional funding of €13 million for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.

At a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on October 26, however, when Varadkar was asked if Ireland would be advocating an open-ended cease-fire, he watered down the call: “What we’re looking for is the EU calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. We’re not going to put a timeframe on it.”

The coalition government voted down Sinn Féin’s motion to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Presumably sensing a further shift in the international mood by early November, Varadkar belatedly referred to Israel’s actions as “something more approaching revenge,” while Martin stated that the scale of the bombing campaign “contravenes the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law.”

Yet these were no more than feeble diplomatic nudges. In the same month, Martin traveled to Israel for what one Palestinian activist, Fatin Al Tamimi, vice chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, called a “war propaganda tour” — proof, she added, “that Israel cares what small states like Ireland think and say about its actions.”

To further reinforce Ireland’s compliance with the largely unified view at EU level, the coalition government voted down Sinn Féin’s motion to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court on November 15, together with a motion from the Social Democrats calling for the withdrawal of the Israeli ambassador’s diplomatic status in Ireland.

Around the same time, the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo visited the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, with the former calling for a permanent cease-fire. In December, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, Petra De Sutter, called for sanctions against Israel. This month, she wrote that Belgium “must act against the threat of genocide,” signaling her desire for the Belgian government to take action at the ICJ alongside South Africa.

Double Standards

Hesitant to develop a truly independent approach, Ireland’s governing politicians have instead used the camouflage of European compromise and consensus to hide from living up to even their own distorted and minimalist understanding of Irish neutrality, while caricaturing more radical stances as irresponsibly naive or apologetic of terrorism. When Varadkar suggests that the EU has “lost credibility” with young people and those in the Global South, he unintentionally implicates his own government.

As the Irish Times crime and security reporter Conor Gallagher reminds us, when it comes to foreign policy thinking, Irish diplomats stress the basic principle of consistency: Irish policy, they insist, should not change overnight, regardless of dramatic headlines. But officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs only abide by this maxim when it suits them — in other words, when it aligns Dublin with the major Western powers.

Ireland’s policy of nonalignment is military rather than political, as successive governments have stressed since the 1990s. In 2016, Micheál Martin did not hesitate to charge the Assad government in Syria with genocide. More recently, in 2022, Martin accused Russia of genocide when a Russian rocket killed sixty-three Ukrainian civilians. In a 2023 speech, he called Russia a “rogue state” before adding explicitly: “We stand with Ukraine.”

Ireland’s policy of nonalignment is military rather than political, as successive governments have stressed since the 1990s.

On the other hand, Martin and his governmental allies have never described Israel as a practitioner of apartheid, let alone a rogue state. They selectively invoke the will of the Irish people in statements about Russian aggression in Ukraine, but not in the milquetoast responses to Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

There are some straightforward explanations for the Irish approach. First of all, there is a personal disinclination on the part of its politicians to upset the apple cart: after all, possible appointments to unelected European sinecures are just an election or two away. There is also a wider structural loyalty to the foreign policy objectives of Washington as mediated through Brussels, with the vaunted “strategic autonomy” of the latter having been shown to be a sham.

On January 18, a divide opened up between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives in the European Parliament. Fianna Fáil MEPs voted for a motion calling for an unconditional cease-fire. Fine Gael, on the other hand, supported an amendment to the motion from the European People’s Party that made a cease-fire conditional on the total dismantling of Hamas, with no conditions applied to Israel.

This brought them into full alignment with the objectives of Netanyahu’s government and constituted a clear break with the position on a cease-fire that had been voted for by the Dáil and argued for by the Irish government. Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher strongly criticized the amendment that Fine Gael had endorsed:

The inclusion of conditionality clauses with respect to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, supported by right-wing MEPs, was a red line issue for us . . . the final text did not, we feel, reflect our views, and crucially the views of the vast majority of Irish people who we seek to represent in the European Parliament.

Dragging Their Feet

On the radical left, People Before Profit (PBP) has spearheaded calls for the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, to be expelled. Sinn Féin initially refused to call for the ambassador’s expulsion, even though it had been the only party to do the same for the Russian ambassador after the invasion of Ukraine.

Eventually the party shifted gear under pressure and called the Israeli ambassador’s position “untenable” — much to the displeasure of Micheál Martin, who cited this as proof that a Sinn Féin–led government reliant on support from the Left would be “dragged all the time by the far left into positions that are untenable or that are irresponsible.”

The current program for the Irish government commits it to recognize the state of Palestine as part of a two-state solution.

PBP has also warned that the United States may be using Shannon Airport, which has effectively been an operating base of the US military since the early 2000s, to transport weapons to Israel. This is an accusation that the government disputes, although it has not carried out inspections of US aircraft.

The current program for the Irish government commits it to recognize the state of Palestine as part of a two-state solution. A motion calling for recognition has passed through both houses of Ireland’s parliament. However, Varadkar and Martin have refused to act on this pledge on the grounds that a “critical mass” of other EU countries would be necessary to do so.

The Occupied Territories Bill, which would ban trade with and economic support for illegal settlements in the occupied territories, has already gone through the requisite legislative stages, but the government has also blocked its implementation for political purposes. Lawyers have disputed a claim by the Irish attorney general that the bill would be contrary to European law.

And while Ireland became in 2021 the first EU member state to pass a motion condemning the “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land by Israel, it has done little of practical value to place the necessary diplomatic pressure on the more pro-Israel EU member-states. Another piece of legislation in limbo is the Illegal Israeli Settlements Divestment Bill 2023, designed to compel the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund to divest its investments from companies operating in Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Litmus Test

Most solidarity activists have a clear idea of what the government should do: enact these popular bills and join the South African case in the ICJ as a third party. In terms of political discourse, as Fatin Al Tamimi has argued, Ireland must also finally acknowledge “the consensus among human rights organizations that Israel is practising the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people.”

This would pave the way for a proposal by international law professor John Reynolds that Ireland should call for the reestablishment of the Special Committee Against Apartheid, originally created in 1962 to report to the UN General Assembly and Security Council on institutionalized racism in apartheid South Africa.

While Israel is laying waste to Gaza, the Irish government has refused to countenance anything that strays too far from the European line.

While Israel is laying waste to Gaza, the Irish government has refused to countenance anything that strays too far from the European line, despite the room for maneuver provided to it by its own interpretation of neutrality. Varadkar and Martin will never be uncompromising supporters of Palestinian liberation, even if they seek to project a sense of moral leadership on the Gaza crisis. Yet their reluctance to endorse popular legislation or uphold a consistent commitment to universal principles damages the credibility of Irish foreign policy.

In the history books, the animosity toward Ireland expressed by Israeli politicians and commentators will not suffice as evidence of Irish intervention on the genocide in Gaza. Moral indignation and talk of humanitarian crises may shift the conversation, but the ultimate litmus test will be if Ireland can jettison an indistinctly European stance and embrace practical measures to ostracize the Israeli state.

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