Ireland’s Palestine move a step towards independence in foreign policy formation

This week’s developments are about many things including the Government and new Taoiseach seeking to promote themselves as moral consciences internationally

On Wednesday, when announcing Ireland’s formal recognition of the state of Palestine, Taoiseach Simon Harris made much of the Message to the Free Nations of the World, unveiled at the meeting of the first Dáil in January 1919. It called on “every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognising Ireland’s national status and her right to its vindication at the Peace Congress”.

That congress was in Paris to discuss the post-war international situation. Sinn Féin TD Seán T Ó Ceallaigh, as a “delegate of the provisional government of the Irish Republic”, travelled there. He was the representative of a government without international status, and the acknowledgment of his application for an identity card to travel listed his nationality as “Britannique”. He failed to receive a hearing at the conference, meaning Irish republicans had to cast a wider net, by mobilising a diaspora, internationalising the War of Independence, embarrassing London and, overall, engaging in a multi-faceted propaganda war. Some Zionists of that generation adopted a similar approach when fighting the British occupation of Palestine in the 1930s and some Irish nationalists were happy to see themselves and Zionists as kindred souls.

Delivering on Ireland’s stated mission in 1919 was only partly successful; there was to be no republic in the short term and “settling” the Irish question involved partition. That wound endured. At the League of Nations in 1937, Eamon de Valera insisted the Palestine question could not be solved by partition, “the cruelest wrong that could be done to any people”. Such partition became a reality with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948; in response, the Irish government delayed “de facto” recognition of Israel until February 1949 when the cabinet decided to afford this minimum level of acknowledgment.

Ireland tiptoed around this issue subsequently. In his 2005 book Ireland and the Palestine Question 1948-2004, Rory Miller notes that in 1952, Ó Ceallaigh, now president of Ireland, was told it would be inappropriate for him to send a message of condolence to Israel on the death of its president Chaim Weizmann, but de Valera as taoiseach sent a private message to Rabbi Isaac Herzog, whom de Valera had been close to in Dublin when Herzog was chief rabbi there from 1925-36. De Valera referred to Weizmann as a “great leader of his people”. The same year, Herzog described de Valera as a “sincere friend” of Israel”, but “de jure” recognition of Israel was not granted by Ireland until 1963. Miller suggests that rather than partition, it was the issue of the status of the Holy Lands that caused the delay.


As Ireland grew its international and UN wings, its narrative about the Israel/Palestine issue shifted. As minister for external affairs, Frank Aiken was vocal about Palestinian refugees, and after the 1967 war, demanded the withdrawal of Israeli forces to prewar lines, insisting Israel “had no right whatever to annex the territory of its neighbours”.

As minister for foreign affairs in 1980, Brian Lenihan visited Bahrain, issuing a communique acknowledging the legitimacy of “the establishment of an independent state in Palestine … within the framework of a negotiated peace”; furthermore, “all parties”, including the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) should play a “full role” in this. Israel was incensed, while the Arab world saw it as “Ireland’s definitive commitment to an independent Palestine”.

This presaged the European Economic Community’s (EEC) Venice Declaration later that year, acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, but criticising its “territorial occupation” since 1967 and declaring Palestinians be allowed to exercise their “right to self-determination” and the PLO to be “associated” with dialogue, a deliberately ambiguous stance due to EEC internal divisions.

The Irish 2016 Programme for Government promised to “honour our commitment to recognise the state of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict”. Subsequently, in 2019, the Dáil passed the Occupied Territories Bill seeking to prohibit importation and sale of goods originating from illegal settlements, which was castigated by Israel. Notwithstanding, Ronit Lentin, chairperson of Academics for Palestine, observed that Irish governments seemed “reluctant to give up high-level economic and research and development collaboration with Israel, including in the field of the arms trade.”

This week’s developments are about untangling the inheritance of ambiguity, recognising the long-standing role of solidarity and advocacy groups, genuine belief in the right to self-determination, disgust at Israel’s horrific war on Gaza, and an Irish Government and new Taoiseach seeking to promote themselves as moral consciences internationally. These factors have combined to produce an initiative suggesting independence in the formation of foreign policy. The removal of the caveat “part of a lasting settlement” marks it as a significant moment, as with 1980 – though, as then, the same complexities exist about EU unanimity, terrorism, the representative voice of Palestinians and Israel’s outrage. The new challenge is to prove this week’s move represents a “definitive commitment”.