As the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and Downing Street in London were lit up with the blue and white flag of Israel – as were many other European landmarks in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Saturday 7 October – no such similar move was made in Dublin. And while scenes of Palestinian revellers on the streets of London or at the base of Sydney Opera House over the weekend may have been met with open-mouthed shock, the throng of Palestinian activists outside Government Buildings in Dublin was hardly unexpected.
The pro-Palestinian disposition, which is general to much of Ireland, emerges from an erroneously held sense of kinship. In spite of the obvious and vast differences between the Israel-Palestine conflict and the partition of Northern Ireland, plenty of Irish see the heart of the problems as the same: two peoples subject to the whims of an overweening imperial power, under the thumb of intractable sectarianism. Pauline Dully, a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála (TD, or member of parliament), said in 2021 that the people of Ireland “sympathise [with] and understand” the Palestinian plight, “as the northern part of our country experienced similar for many years”.
Of course, upon interrogating this alleged shared experience of Palestinians in Gaza and Catholics in Northern Ireland the allegory falls apart rather swiftly. Trying to derive lessons for the Levant from the Falls Road reminds us that metaphors tend to obfuscate rather than clarify; intellectual displacement can lead people to ludicrous conclusions.
But in Northern Ireland, the lines are starkly drawn: wandering through a unionist area you will see Israeli flags alongside Union Jacks; in nationalist areas the tricolour hangs comfortably beside the Palestinian flag. On Sunday a Palestinian flag was strewn across a hill, looming over Belfast. The former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams remarked: “The Mountain Speaks! Free Palestine.” As with everything in divided communities, this is a matter of base tribalism.
But more than that, it is a threshold moment for Sinn Féin’s future legitimacy. The party was reluctant to condemn Hamas during conflict in 2021; the same year it tabled a parliamentary motion to define Israel as a “de-facto annexation”. Ireland was the last country in Europe to host an Israeli embassy. In May 2017 a Palestinian flag was raised above Dublin City Hall to mark “50 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank”. Ireland has long been an uncomfortable bedfellow with its European colleagues on the question of Israel and Palestine. And Sinn Féin especially so.
Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, condemned Hamas on Monday morning. She is wily enough to understand that anything less would not be morally credible, not as she fashions herself as the leader of a so-called mainstream movement. Sinn Féin is readying itself for government in the Republic for the first time – it is expected to become the largest party in the general election due by 2025. McDonald knows this process will require a significant amount of reputation laundering.
But it is not clear that the party is ready to reconcile its principles with the realities of Hamas’s brutality. The youth wing – Ógra Shinn Féin – superimposed its logo on a Palestinian flag and shared it on social media as news emerged about the massacre Hamas perpetrated at a music festival in Israel on Saturday. McDonald caveated her own statement of condemnation with reference to Israeli “annexation” and its “apartheid regime”; on Friday her headline photo on Twitter remained the Palestinian flag. Chris Andrews, a Sinn Féin TD, wore a Palestine jersey as Joe Biden, the US president, addressed parliament five months ago. Sinn Féin may seek legitimacy on the international stage, but its colours are firmly nailed to the mast.
And it only gets more complicated for the party from here. McDonald may be playing a delicate balancing act now. But it is one thing to condemn Hamas from the opposition benches while still permitting reams of equivocation from party ranks. It is another for Sinn Féin to be in government forging Ireland’s actual foreign policy, making decisions that neither betray its historic prejudice nor harm Ireland’s global reputation. There is not an obvious route through this dilemma.
The question of Sinn Féin and Palestine reveals a fault line that has always existed in Irish foreign policy. Since divining its strategy of neutrality, Ireland has always sought a line down the middle: casting itself as ultimately European but refusing to follow the playbook; drafting a careful foreign policy but eschewing a credible defence one; claiming to be “militarily neutral” but not “politically” so – as Micheál Martin, the taoiseach (prime minister) at the time, declared Ireland to be upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; wanting to be a member of the club with special permission to deviate; expecting protection but offering little in return.
Perhaps Sinn Féin will learn from actual power that the fudged response may no longer pass muster. It is hard to see how the party’s bid to appease both sides of the aisle will be accepted in Washington, for example. And so Ireland could easily lose its golden child status in the US over this – something the country relies on. Sinn Féin equivocation is not just morally bereft but politically foolish.
It is clear that in an increasingly bifurcated world this path is no longer sustainable – neither under legacy parties such as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, nor under a potential Sinn Féin coalition. Soon Ireland, as it peddles its notions of neutrality and both-sides-ism, will be met with the full brunt of cliché: that to be a friend to all is to be a friend to none. Whether this realisation is forced by Washington, Brussels or Westminster remains to be seen. But it will come.
[See also: The strange rebirth of Sinn Féin]