As in nearly all Western European countries, there are those in Ireland who would have us believe that their country has a special relationship with the Middle East. Some of this has to do with trade, some with the sharing of enemies. But the affinities of Ireland with the Middle East, these Irish claim, are deeper and more binding than that. In the nineteenth century the leadership of the movement for Irish Catholic emancipation within Protestant society supported the parallel movement for Jewish freedom within gentile society. In this century, both Zionist and Arab nationalists have sought to invoke the Irish “example.”
The world of the sentimental, for all that it invokes history, knows no time, but a number of recent developments have superimposed upon these alleged eternal analogies some more pressing concerns. Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 has forced it to take positions on international issues, including the Middle East, and to put its neutrality into practice. At the same time, the attractions of agricultural exports to the oil states have risen substantially over the past decade. As an index of increased interest, the record of Dublin’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern states speaks for itself — Israel in 1974, Egypt in 1975, Tunisia in 1978, Iraq in 1980, Saudi Arabia in 1981 and so forth. The presence since 1978 of a 600-strong Irish peacekeeping battalion in Lebanon, a number of whom have been killed, has highlighted some complexities of the issue. And rhetoric about struggle aside, there has been considerable speculation about the role of Middle Eastern states, especially Libya, in supplying arms to paramilitary forces in Ireland. For those in the business of constructing special relationships, there is more than enough to get on with.
Despite its membership in the EEC and the UN, though, Ireland is a very small and weak country, both politically and militarily, and a long way from the Middle East. Beyond expressions of sentiment and support, and some low-level trading and diplomatic activity, there is little it can do. Only two Middle Eastern states, Egypt and Iran, actually have embassies in Dublin, the rest preferring to conduct relations from London. Ireland has embassies only in Cairo, Baghdad, Riyadh and Tehran.
Within the EEC Ireland is the least significant state, and the only EEC country not to be also a member of NATO. Thus its ability to voice an independent position on international issues is limited. The growing concern of the EEC to formulate common strategic and security doctrine under the rubric of European Political Cooperation has inevitably aroused discussion of how long Ireland, one of the traditional European neutrals, can avoid at least an informal association with NATO. The most independent-minded of the EEC states on the Arab-Israeli question has been Greece; but even Athens, much nearer the region and of greater weight than Ireland, has found little space for voicing a distinctive position.
There is a deeper problem about Ireland’s supposed affinity with the Middle East, namely who exactly is supposed to be championing this link. On the Irish side, both the predominately Catholic nationalists and the Protestant Loyalists have aroused their admirers in the Middle East. Zionist rhetoric at one time heralded the common struggle of the southern Irish against British imperialism, the experience of two valiant nations reviving their culture and identity against all odds. Some leaders of the Haganah have claimed, on what evidence it is not clear, that in their struggle against the British they were assisted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
There is the 2,000-strong Jewish community in Ireland, one of whose members, Chaim Herzog, emigrated to Palestine, became Israel's representative at the UN, and is currently president of Israel. Some of the few hundred Irish Jews who have emigrated to Israel probably serve in the Israeli armed forces as Gaelic-Hebrew translators, monitoring the radio communications of Irish peacekeeping forces in Sinai and Lebanon.
There are also those who see in Zionism and Israel the equivalent to the pro-British Protestants of Ulster, a besieged religious-national community holding out for its values and remaining "loyal," with all the truculence implied in that term, to the metropolis. It would be mistaken to look for conspiracies in this domain, but there was considerable shrewdness in the observation of the pro-Zionist British officials just after World War I who, as quoted in Ronald Storrs’ Orientations, endorsed the establishment of “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”
The situation has been at times equally complicated by the divided sympathies of some Arabs towards Ireland. Everyone in the Middle East knows the Irish have been valiant “strugglers,” but exactly who has struggled, and for what, is not always clear. The links between Irish nationalists and Egyptian counterparts were proclaimed in the first two decades of this century; there have later been links, often of a military kind, between the IRA and Palestinian groups. There were at one time posters in southern Beirut carrying the dual portraits of Khomeini and the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The Protestant paramilitary forces that arose in Ulster in the 1970s have also traded on their reputation as “strugglers,” and Qaddafi, for all that he has helped the IRA with guns, has also provided some political, financial and military support to the Protestant militias. They are, after all, strugglers too.
Conor Cruise O’Brien explored these antinomies in The Siege, a sympathetic history of the Zionist movement and of Israel. O’Brien notes that when Ireland joined the UN General Assembly in 1955, it was warmly greeted there by both Arabs and Israelis because the Irish delegation was now able to create a neutral zone between Iraq and Israel. He sees some parallels between the condition of Irish Catholics and Palestinian Arabs, but he is himself more drawn to the parallel between the Catholic and Jewish cases: If the Jews were the worst sufferers in modern European history, the Irish Catholics came next.
O’Brien, a gifted, independent and at times aberrant writer, is not the only person in Ireland to have made this comparison. During the 1970s one of the more curious components of the island’s political scene was a small group known as the British and Irish Communist Organization, which specialized in publishing outrageous, if often stimulating, studies of major issues. Thus they supported the view that the Calvinism of the Ulster Protestants was, on historical materialist grounds, preferable to the feudalist Catholic ideology of the nationalists; they argued spiritedly for the progressive role of imperialism (a position that attracted to their ranks the former Communist Party member Bill Warren); they gave credence to some of the show trials of the Stalin period; and, by no means least, they promoted their version of Israel as a bourgeois democratic and relatively secular state against the backward, monarchical and superstitious masses of the Arab world.
Overall, the majority of southern Irish opinion has, since the 1960s at least, been sympathetic to the Palestinians and hostile to Israel. If one of the earlier contextual factors for Irish hostility to Israel was common, low-key anti-Semitism — a generally pre-Auschwitz sensibility — more rational and justified arguments have come to predominate. Some of the most important early documentation of the 1947-1948 expulsion of Palestinians was written by Erskine Childers, an Irish writer who later became the president of Ireland.
Irish foreign policy has been clearly more favorable to the Palestinians than that of most other Western European states. While Ireland has supported Israeli access to the EEC for its agricultural goods, Israeli participation in European sports, and the campaign for Soviet Jewry, Dublin’s position on the Arab-Israeli question itself has been critical of Israel. Ireland continues to refuse to accept an Israeli ambassador in Dublin. Those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in Ireland take as their point of departure the statement of Irish foreign minister Brian Lenihan during a visit to Bahrain in 1980, when he not only called for the establishment of a Palestinian state but also condemned all annexations of territory by force, including Jerusalem, and recognized the PLO as “a representative” of the Palestinian people.
Sympathy for the Palestinian cause has been fueled since 1978 by the fate of the Irish forces stationed at Tabnin, in southern Lebanon, with UNIFIL. Some of the Irish soldiers killed have been victims of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, and Irish public opinion has widely blamed their deaths on Israel. The Irish in the Middle East have known other misadventures which no special relationship has been able to prevent. One of the two dozen Western hostages in Lebanon is an Irishman, Brian Keenan from Belfast. Although Keenan is a Protestant, IRA prisoners in British jails have appealed for his release on grounds of Irish-Arab solidarity.
The deeper misadventure may lie not in individual incidents of this kind, but in the dimensions of tragedy and impasse that seem so rooted in both regions: the horrendous mixture of violence and historical legitimation, of communal hatred based on religion and politics, of pernicious and irresponsible imperialist intervention, of gun cults and the glorification of martyrdom. Ireland and the Middle East are a long way away: It may be precisely this distance that enables so many comforting myths to arise.