Borders, boycotts and Sally Rooney: Why the Irish stand with Palestine

A man passes by a mural with images of Bobby Sands and Brendan Hughes painted on the wall in Falls Road on October 29, 2019 in Belfast, United Kingdom [Getty Images]
6 min read
26 October, 2021
Sally Rooney's refusal to sell her book's rights to an Israeli publishing house has brought Ireland's continued support for Palestine to the fore once more. The New Arab looks back at the history of this support, and the two's shared psyche.

Earlier this month popular Irish author Sally Rooney announced that she would not be selling the Hebrew translation rights to her new book Beautiful World Where Are You to an Israeli publishing house.

The author’s decision immediately drew accusations of anti-Semitism or, more condescendingly, was dismissed as ‘virtue signalling’. For all the condemnation her critics piled on, they also demonstrated an inability to grasp the broader context behind the author’s decision.

Rooney has publicly stated that her decision was made in keeping with the guidelines set out by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and that the Hebrew publishing rights are still available to a publishing house compliant with the BDS movement’s directives.

The author said of her decision: “I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from the apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.”

"The historical parallels between Ireland and Palestine are fairly clear, the two nations having been partitioned by Britain in the early 20th century leading to mass eviction, hunger and violent repression"

Rooney, hailing from county Mayo, the birthplace of the word ‘Boycott’, is simply reinforcing a long tradition of anti-colonialism in Ireland. Her decision, though presented as shocking by the usual crowd, should not come as any great surprise. In May, Rooney added her signature to A Letter Against Apartheid joining thousands in voicing their support for the rights of Palestinians and recognising Israel as a ‘colonising power’.

Rooney is by no means alone in her support for Palestine among Irish creatives. In January 2021, ‘The Ireland Palestine Solidarity’ campaign surpassed over a thousand signatures from Irish artists on its pledge to boycott Israel.

The historical parallels between Ireland and Palestine are fairly clear, the two nations having been partitioned by Britain in the early 20th century leading to mass eviction, hunger and violent repression. Both nations' histories have been pockmarked with sporadic conflict, with catastrophic events like the Nakba in Palestine and An Gorta Mór, Ireland’s Great Famine, driving people from their land in droves.

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In the island’s north, an area still occupied by the British territory of Northern Ireland, Irish Catholics experienced rampant sectarian discrimination at the hands of the predominantly Protestant Ulster loyalist state, effectively being made second class citizens. Employment, cultural expression and political representation were for the most part denied to the Catholic minority leading to the struggle for equality that would ignite The Troubles, a 30-year conflict that killed over 4,000 people.

Brutal crackdowns, sectarian attacks and insurgency became near-daily occurrences up until the peace process and introduction of a power-sharing government after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Though the island has for now regained stability, the national psyche is irreversibly marked with the reality of occupation and repression.

The religious aspect of both conflicts also cannot be ignored. The same bigoted sentiments voiced by Ulster loyalist politicians to this day are echoed by the Islamophobic rhetoric of policymakers in Jerusalem.

The same dehumanising ideology that led former DUP Leader Ian Paisley to declare Catholics “Breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” also exists among Israeli political figures such as former Netanyahu adviser Uri Elitzer, who said in an article “They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there”,  a sentiment later posted on Facebook by current Israeli minister for the interior Ayelet Shaked.

British soldier aiming rifle at catholic civilians near the Falls Road, Belfast
British soldier aiming a rifle at catholic civilians near the Falls Road, Belfast

This exposure, either to direct occupation, for those in the north or to the realities of partition island-wide has cultivated a strong connection to Palestine. Images of eviction, sectarian mobs and heavily armed soldiers on civilian streets still resonate for many in Ireland – memories of their own not so distant history.

In light of this shared history it is unsurprising that on May 26, Ireland became the first European nation to label Israel's actions in the occupied territories as a 'De Facto annexation', after a motion brought forward by the main opposition party, Sinn Fein, passed in the Irish Parliament.

"Rooney is by no means alone in her support for Palestine among Irish creatives. In January 2021 ‘The Ireland Palestine Solidarity’ campaign surpassed over a thousand signatures from Irish artists on its pledge to boycott Israel"

This decision caused backlash from the Israeli government. Irish ambassador Kyle O’Sullivan summoned to Israel’s foreign office, was told the Irish Foreign Ministry’s comments were "one-sided, outrageous and completely unacceptable”. This exchange ratcheted up already simmering tension between the two governments.

In February this year, Israeli forces destroyed 70 structures at Khirbet Humsah, bulldozing tents, solar panels and other aid supplied and clearly marked by the Irish government, with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney labelling it as “egregious acts against a vulnerable population”. The official reason given by the Israeli government was that the area had been designated a military firing range and the inhabitants had been moved on for their own safety.

Destroyed encampment at Khirbet Humsah
Destroyed encampment at Khirbet Humsah

While the Irish government had expressed sympathy with the Palestinian struggle for some time, the decision to apply the label of de facto annexation came on the back of a huge public outcry against the 11-day attack on Gaza in May. Demonstrations took place across Ireland and Irish social media was awash with messages of support and petitions demanding the government take action.

While individuals like Rooney continue to stick their heads above the parapet and champion BDS with their own actions, the same can not currently be said of the Irish government. The Occupied Territories Bill 2018, which bans goods produced in illegal settlements, has still not been ratified and is still in the ‘committee stage’.

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Though the passing of the bill in 2018 was heralded as a victory for the BDS movement, three years later it seems as though it might be dead in the water. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has dismissed calls for the bill to be fully ratified citing a potential breach of EU law. When urged to implement the bill in the wake of May's violence Coveney insisted a boycott would be “counterproductive”.

Calls to defer to the EU on BDS measures, however, ring hollow, especially after the German Luftwaffe performed a flyover exercise close to the Knesset in Jerusalem last week.

If certain EU member states continue to endorse the Israeli security forces and build closer ties with Jerusalem then it will remain up to individuals and individual governments to champion BDS measures and the UN-mandated human rights of the Palestinian people, a task that many Irish, like Rooney, will continue to do. 

Adam Doyle is an artist and researcher based in the Republic of Ireland specialising in Irish politics.

Follow him on Instagram: @spicebag.exe