Northern Ireland

Why republicans and loyalists support different sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

For decades opinion on the Israeli-Paletinian conflict has divided along unionist-nationalist lines. Political Correspondent John Manley explains why ...

A Palestinian flag flies outside the Cultúrlann on Belfast's Falls Road. Picture by Mal McCann
A Palestinian flag flies outside the Cultúrlann on Belfast's Falls Road. Picture by Mal McCann

Northern Ireland, Palestine and Israel

There are exceptions in Ireland, but historically affiliations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have roughly reflected people's views on the constitutional issue – nationalists/republicans support the Palestinian struggle, unionists/loyalists back the Israelis. 

In recent days this schism has manifested itself on the airwaves and on social media with mainstream unionist politicians arguing for displays of solidarity with Israel in the wake of Hamas's brutal and unprecedented assault that has left more than 1,000 dead.

The response from those resisting such gestures is the need to look at the context. The violent weekend assault on Israeli civilian targets is the latest bloody episode in a conflict stretching back decades. For the past 16 years Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza that has left much of the population traumatised and living in poverty. 

Read more:

  • Ireland's support for Palestine: An explainer
  •  Israel vows to 'crush and destroy Hamas' as it prepares Gaza ground assault

Israeli settlements in the West Bank

Meanwhile, Zionists have also continued to use violence to expand settlements in the West Bank, in breach of international law. In the past decade and half, more than 6,000 Palestinians have died at the hands of the Israelis but criticism of such aggression is erroneously labelled antisemitism.

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Imam Jamal Iweida addresses several hundred people at a rally at Belfast City Hall held in support of the Palestinian cause

DUP support for Israel

Arguably the most public display of support for Israel comes from the DUP's Westminster representatives, five of whom were among just a dozen MPs who in 2014 voted against a Labour motion to recognise Palestinian statehood. The party is quick to draw parallels between the violence of Hamas and the IRA's campaign. In the aftermath of the weekend attacks, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley cited what he described as a "long association between Hamas and Sinn Féin", and called on the latter to "outrightly condemn" the actions of the Palestinian militants. His colleague Carla Lockhart then labelled Naomi Long "pathetic" after the Alliance leader advocated lighting candles for peace rather than lighting up public buildings in solidarity with Israel. 

Read more: Israeli strikes demolish Gaza neighbourhoods as power plant runs out of fuel

But seemingly the DUP's strong ties with Israel are nothing new. In 1984, a couple of years before Ulster Resistance came to the fore, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson paid a visit to Israel on an apparent fact-finding tour. During his visit, the man who would later become first minister was pictured brandishing an AK-47.

UDA and Israel

The tradition of loyalist support for Israel also dates back decades. Under the leadership of Johnny Adair, the UDA became enthusiastic supporters of the Israeli cause in the early 2000s. Lampposts across Belfast's Lower Shankill and Tigers Bay were bedecked with Star of David flags, which flew alongside those of loyalist paramilitaries. Reports from the time suggest there was some consternation among British far-right groups at the rather unorthodox alliance. 

A pro-Israeli mural in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
A pro-Israeli mural in Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

Allegiance between Irish nationalists and Palestinians

The allegiance between Irish nationalism and the Palestinian cause is perhaps easier to understand, as both fit comfortably into the anti-imperialist/colonial model that historically has also seen support for other overseas causes like the anti-apartheid movement and Basque separatism. 

In 2006, the then Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams met Hamas, a move which the US government sought to stop. Over the previous decades there had been strong ties between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the republican movement.

Read more:Varadkar: Solidarity for Israel will fall apart if it goes too far in Gaza

Irish government stance

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have been largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause yet not at the total exclusion of engagement with Israel. In 2016 it emerged that a Sinn Féin delegation had met representatives of the right wing Likud party, while some two years later an SDLP delegation also met Israeli officials.

The Irish government too has in the past been critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories and this week resisted EU efforts to cut off aid to Gaza. President Michael D Higgins has also alluded to Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians and in 2017 faced criticism for welcoming Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, at an Irish Congress of Trade Unions meeting.