The power of shared experience  

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Counter protestors at anti-Israel protest. Photo by Ted Eytan/Consortium News

Of the 44 nations in Europe, the State of Israel has labeled this one as the most pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli state. 

While western democratic powers such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany have shown unequivocal support for Israel since the events of Oct. 7, the Irish government has been different. Joining countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Tunisia, The Republic of Ireland recently announced that they would be sending humanitarian aid to Gaza

When debating the Israel-Hamas war in the Dáil Éireann — the Irish version of the House of Representatives in the United States — there was bipartisan support for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Ireland is unique in the west for two reasons: their criticism of Israel’s retaliation since the events of Oct. 7 and their overall criticism of the state of Israel since its inception. 

But why? At surface level there seems to be no relationship between the Irish people and Palestinians. It’s not like they are geographically close to each other. Dublin, Ireland’s capital, is 2,513 miles away from Gaza City. The real answer lies in a shared history. As Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald pointed out, “We in Ireland know all too well the pain and tragedy of colonization, occupation and dispossession. We have known conflict and suffering. We have known war. We know peace.” 

There are few countries around the world who are as sensitive to the dangers of colonization as Ireland is. The blueprints for the tactics the British would use to create one of the largest empires in the world were perfected in Ireland. 

Going as far back as the 1600s, the British government has treated the Irish people and their land as a personal punching bag, beginning with the establishment of English and Scottish settlements, followed by the slow takeover of the lands of the indigenous Gaelic Catholics. 

In 1690, the British began imposing Penal Laws, banning Irish Catholics from holding office and practicing the law, limiting educational opportunities for Irish people and making the practice of their religion illegal. It’s not just that these people were having their land taken; they were not even viewed as people. The Protestant British settlers viewed the Irish Catholics as racially inferior to them. 

Abuses of the Irish by the English government continued into the subsequent centuries. The infamous Irish potato famine of 1845, which killed over 750,000 people in 10 years, was largely caused and worsened by the social policies implemented by the British government. 

The English government believed that a free market solution was the key to solving the famine. Following this belief, in 1846, the government repealed the existing Corn Laws, laws designed to protect domestic growers from foreign competition; however, this failed to end the famine because most Irish farmers were too broke to purchase foreign grain. 

The Irish population was still reeling from the effects of the famine. In 1841 Ireland was home to over eight million people. Half a century later, the native population decreased to six million despite having a significantly higher birth rate than other nations. In addition, strict English laws prevented the development of any Irish industry that could rival Britain’s economic power. 

Due to these conditions, Irish resistance to British rule became more frequent. The Easter Rising in 1916, when Irish nationalists attacked colonial forces the week of Easter, was a short-lived insurrection that laid the foundation for the Treaty and the Government of Ireland Act. This treaty led to a partition of Ireland. 26 southern colonies became an independent nation while the 6 counties in Northern Ireland remained firmly under British control. 

Around the time that Ireland was finally achieving some level of independence from colonial rule, the British had their eyes set on another colonial project, announcing the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This declaration received heavy support from Zionists — those in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. 

When this first happened, the Irish were actually on the side of the Zionists. The Irish saw in Zionists another group of people who had been persecuted and tossed aside. Irish Republican leader Michael Davitt gave a glowing endorsement, saying he was “a convinced believer in the remedy of Zionism.” 

But over time, Irish sympathy for the cause began to diminish. In 1937, when Zionists accepted the British plan to partition Palestine and create an independent state, Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera compared the British carve-up of Palestine to that to which Ireland was subjected. 

In 1967, there was still support from the Irish for the Israeli government; however, that support dried up after the Six Day War. As the Irish became more aware of the cruel treatment of Palestinians, public opinion shifted away from Israel more and more by the day. Additionally, Ireland was the first European country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

To this day, the Irish government remains one of the loudest voices advocating for the rights of Palestinians. Their support is a lesson in the power of empathy. Despite being thousands of miles away from Gaza, the scars of colonialism and the terror that came with it will forever keep these two communities tied closely together.  

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