Brian Lawless / PA Wire / AP

Northern Ireland hears an echo of itself in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Graffiti show how some affected by the Irish conflict see reflections of Northern Ireland in Gaza

Members of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the small Northern Irish town of Dungannon awoke Thursday to a disturbing sight: Graffiti reading “f--- Gaza” and several swastikas scrawled in bright green paint on the house of worship, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

To make matters worse, a couple had a wedding set at St. Patrick’s later in the day. Workers quickly washed off the offensive tags, which bore the phrase "UVF14," referring to the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group, and to a white nationalist phrase with 14 letters in it, according to The Telegraph.

The wedding went ahead as planned.

“Parishioners are disgusted by this,” the local member of parliament, Michelle Gildernew, a member of the mostly Catholic Sinn Fein party, told The Telegraph.

"There was a wedding this morning, and I spoke to the groom and guests, and they couldn't believe it,” said Gildernew. “I hope those responsible are punished, because this has to stop. These kind of attacks tend to lead on to others and could end in someone being seriously injured or killed."

Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime. 

‘A lot of madness’

Such slogans might seem out of place 3,500 miles away from the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, but for many in Northern Ireland, the causes of the Palestinians and Israelis rouse allegiances when tensions flare in the Middle East.

“Ultimately, Northern Ireland is a very small place, with a lot of madness, and in this sense it is also very similar to Israel,” Ithamar Handelman Smith, an Israeli documentary filmmaker who directed a film about the phenomenon called “Shalom Belfast?” told Haaretz.

Catholics tend to imagine themselves in Palestinian shoes — ruled for hundreds of years by a foreign force, the Protestant English monarchy. Protestants, many descendants of Scottish and English settlers, see themselves in the Israelis’ position — staking a righteous, ancient claim to territory in defiance of a force they view as bloodthirsty insurgents, the Irish Republican Army.

Among the loyalists, i.e., those loyal to the crown, some on the far right openly profess xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments. According to Handelman Smith, they might see Israel as a bulwark against Muslims they feel pose a threat, but they do not bear heartfelt affection for the Jewish people. This, perhaps, explains the inclusion of swastikas, a Nazi symbol, in the graffiti on St. Patrick’s.

“They hate blacks and Muslims and admire Israel because they see in it anti-Muslim might,” Handelman Smith told the paper. “At all those pubs, they asked me whether I had been in the army and had killed Arabs, and I admit I sometimes had to lie.”

During the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, from the late 1960s until the Good Friday agreement in 1998, paramilitary groups from both sides carried out deadly attacks against each other, British troops and innocent civilians. The conflict brought with it bombings, murders, torture and cruel punishments.

Ed Moloney, a journalist and scholar of Irish history, says that while the conflict in Northern Ireland and the one between Israelis and Palestinians share many deep similarities, there are differences that make the latter much harder to resolve.

“The Northern Irish conflict is not a religious conflict,” Moloney said. “People are identified by religion, but it’s a dispute over land, and it’s about unequal distribution of political power.”

“It’s not about fighting over versions of the Bible. It’s about Protestants who were brought over in the 17th century to take land from local Irish people,” he said. “One could argue there are similarities with the Palestinians because the Palestinians also had their lands taken away from them by people from outside.”

Here Moloney refers to the start of what was known as the Ulster Plantation. Oliver Cromwell, a hard-line Protestant English warlord who commanded a fiercely loyal army of soldiers opposed to the Catholic Church, conquered the whole of Ireland in the 1650s, defeating both Catholics and moderate Protestants who opposed him.

Responding to Catholic attacks on Protestant settlers, Cromwell’s campaign killed one-fifth of the indigenous population by sword, musket, disease and starvation. After his victory, Cromwell interned survivors into the western part of the island or sent them to work against their will in the West Indies.

Many of the Irish natives, who often spoke Irish Gaelic, a language distinct from English, were left to work as serfs for Protestant landowners on plantations. These would become models for farms in the American South and the West Indies.

The experience left deep resentments among the Catholic population of Ireland against English rule — animosity that remains. The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, which sent a surge of Irish to the United States and Canada and killed upward of a million people in a population of about 9 million, did not help the relationship.

‘An unhappy peace’

In 1998 political leaders from Protestant and Catholic factions, along with officials from London, signed a peace agreement on Good Friday — later known as the Good Friday accords.

Moloney says that what brought about the peace in Northern Ireland was a willingness among all parties — the government of the United Kingdom as well as Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups — to see an end to hostilities, a willingness he doesn’t see in the Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, Northern Ireland was never affected by the tectonic forces of international politics as Israel and the Palestinian territories have been.

“None of those factors were ever present in the Northern Ireland situation, and it made Northern Ireland easier at the end of the day. And you had in the IRA people who were ready to make very big ideological compromises,” Moloney said, noting that among Palestinians there is a deep split between secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas, each having a separate system of governance, despite recent moves to reconcile.

Meanwhile, the Irish Republican equivalent of Hamas, dissident splinter groups calling themselves the Real IRA, do not retain nearly the kind of power as the Islamist group — nor do they have major international backers.

“It’s a very different situation. It’s not as violent as the Middle East,” Moloney added.

Despite the peace accord, some tension in Northern Ireland lingers, but it usually shows itself in the symbols both sides wield: flags, murals and banners. An annual parade commemorating a 17th-century victory by Protestants over Catholics stirs controversy every year, as the loyalist marchers sometimes try to walk through Catholic neighborhoods carrying inflammatory banners. Riots have erupted year after year as loyalist youths clash with police, tasked with keeping the peace.

To add to their symbolic arsenal, each side has adopted the flag of the Palestinian territories or the flag of Israel. A parade of Catholics denouncing Israel’s assault on Gaza might be met with a countermarch by Protestant groups flying the Israeli flag. The displays happen on the street and on social media as well.

There is a shared history between Israeli Zionists and Irish Republicans, who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Irish Republic. It began shortly after World War II, when members of the IRA provided training to the Irgun, an armed Zionist group.

After years of fighting, the IRA had successfully expelled the British Empire from most of Ireland, using guerilla tactics and homemade bombs. The Irgun were also fighting the sputtering imperial force for control of the area, then called the British Mandate of Palestine. The IRA was happy to help cause trouble for London, and the Irgun was glad to have training in what today many would call terrorism.

But the IRA changed its tune in the late 1960s, siding with groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization as fellow fighters against colonial oppression. It traded expertise and encouragement for their causes. Although the political relationship has withered, the sentiment endures.

The Republicans’ enemies, the loyalist Protestants, picked up the Israeli cause with a similar fervor. A few even contend they represent a lost tribe of Israel and would like to migrate to the country, according to Handelman Smith. Meanwhile, their opponents don kaffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves, and profess the need for justice in the occupied territories.

While the Northern Irish might bear the markings of a far bloodier conflict at a distance, their peace endures — to a degree.

As for what lies ahead for Ireland, Moloney, who has written a book on Irish history, said it’s impossible to tell. 

“Peace in Northern Ireland is there, but it’s an unsettled peace,” he said. “It’s an unhappy peace, but it’s better than what the Middle East has.”

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