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Did Israel expect a country which has endured occupation and violence to stand idly by?

Amid all the woes of homelessness, exorbitant rents, asylum seekers consigned to tents and climate damage, this was a moment to relish being Irish

Wednesday was a breezy day. A gentle wind had been ruffling the leaves on the silver birches since early morning. It tap-danced across clotheslines and worked the sea into a froth of suds. Over the rooftops of State offices, the national flag was puffed up as though inflated with pride.

It was just gone eight o’clock, the day had hardly begun, when the Taoiseach stood on the steps of Government Buildings and swept the scales of sleep from the nation’s eyes with the announcement that Ireland will formally recognise Palestine as a state from next Tuesday. “We must be on the right side of history,” Simon Harris said. Tánaiste Micheál Martin called it “a historic moment for Ireland”. Behind the Government leaders, the tricolour’s prideful puff could not have been better choreographed.

To the rest of the world, Wednesday’s co-ordinated announcements of recognition for Palestinian statehood in Dublin, Oslo and Madrid captured the breaking-news ticker tapes. In Ireland, it had an additional resonance as a giant step forward in this State’s maturation. That wind in the air turned out to be the wind of change.

Amid all the country’s woes of homelessness, exorbitant rents, asylum seekers consigned to street-side tents, racist assaults and climate damage, this was a moment to relish being Irish. For it was a defining moment for what active neutrality means. A moment that crystallised the words often recited by Leo Varadkar when, as taoiseach, he envisaged Ireland as “a small island at the centre of the world.


For more than seven months now, we have witnessed, first, Hamas’s butchering of 1,200 people and the abduction of 252 others in Israel, followed by the Israel Defence Force’s bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 35,000 people, injured and orphaned tens of thousands more and displaced more than three-quarters of the population. We have watched and felt powerless to do anything to stop the slaughter.

The lesson this country learned about how peace comes from talking, not warring, is still raw 26 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed, and Ireland’s willingness to act on that knowledge for the sake of peace elsewhere in the world is admirable

That this country has summoned the gumption to make a strategic intervention is profoundly heartening. It must feel doubly so for new Irish citizens with Palestinian roots and others recently arrived.

Israelis and Jewish people living in Ireland should not see the recognition of Palestine as an act of hostility towards their country or towards them. Nor should they be made to feel it is so. What Ireland, Norway and Spain are doing is, actually, an act of faith. In recognising Gaza, the West Bank and part of Jerusalem as the State of Palestine, they are not giving Hamas or Fatah their blessing to govern it. They are saying to the Palestinian people that the rest of the world has not forgotten them, that they are entitled to their national identity and to determine how they run their country.

For much of this State’s existence, its avowed core value of neutrality has been as moribund as the pearl mussel, with the honourable exception of 66 years’ peacekeeping abroad and Frank Aiken’s indefatigable UN campaign for nuclear disarmament in the 1950s.

There have been occasional prognoses that Irish neutrality’s demise was imminent, as when US war-going planes began landing at Shannon Airport, or when Ireland joined the EU’s Pesco defence alliance or, more recently, when the Government decided to discard the requisite UN mandate in the triple lock mechanism for Defence Forces’ missions overseas. Time and again, opinion polls have recorded majority support for neutrality. In an Irish Times/Ipsos survey last June 61 per cent of respondents backed it. But neutrality is nothing more than a shibboleth if it is always contorted to please the more powerful states we consider our friends.

It takes courage to be actively neutral, to fight for peace rather than war, or, as the late John Hume was wont to repeat, to spill sweat instead of blood to achieve an end to violence. Disbursing arms to aggressors can be an easier option than courting their fury by pursuing a just resolution.

Binyamin Netanyahu’s government was, predictably, incensed by the SIN (Spain, Ireland and Norway) trio’s move. His minister for foreign affairs, Israel Katz, called it “a distorted step” that “sends a message to the Palestinians and the world: Terrorism pays.” The national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, said the Euro trio was awarding “a prize to [Hamas] murderers and abusers”.

What did they expect? That a country such as Ireland that has endured oppression, occupation, starvation, sectarian violence, dislocation and discrimination would stand idly by and watch the people of another state be subjected to similar injustices? Maybe it is precisely what they expected because that has been Ireland’s obsequious disposition in the past.

Even when 100,000 marchers protested against the planned US invasion of Iraq, the Irish government told Uncle Sam to go right ahead – and do drop by for military refuelling on your way. By recognising Palestine, Ireland has taken a boldly independent position contrary to the wishes of the EU and Washington.

You can argue the rights and wrongs of Middle East politics all day long but there is one inescapable truth and it is that slaughtering innocent people will not deliver lasting peace. The lesson this country learned about how peace comes from talking, not warring, is still raw 26 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed, and Ireland’s willingness to act on that knowledge for the sake of peace elsewhere in the world is admirable.

Some scorned that it was vainglorious to think little Ireland could be a world player. Some would prefer it if we minded our own business. There are Opposition parties in the Dáil who wanted a flash-in-the-pan gesture of solidarity with the people of Palestine by expelling the Israeli ambassador, which would have been as short-sighted as cutting off one’s nose. If active neutrality requires courage, it requires patience too.

The last time Micheál Martin was the minister for foreign affairs, he was the first western politician in that position to visit Gaza after Hamas took control of the strip. That was in February 2010. His has been no overnight conversion. It has been a long, patient slog. Had Ireland been in Nato, the odds of that slog succeeding would have been prohibitive.

For those of us who believe in the beneficial power of state neutrality, this week has not only endowed Palestinians with a greater freedom to say “I am proud to be Palestinian” but for people on this island too to say “I am proud to be Irish”.