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‘Sometimes there are no adjectives left’: No dissenting voices as Dáil rubber-stamps decision to recognise Palestine

Throughout the day, a steady stream of people arrived in Merrion Street to capture an image of the Palestinian flag flying outside the Irish parliament

Usually, people taking photographs through the bars of the railings are trying to take a decent picture of Leinster House.

But on Tuesday, the building was their backdrop.

They came to photograph a flag.

Throughout the day, from early morning until dusk, a steady stream of people arrived in Merrion Street to capture an image of the Palestinian flag flying outside the Irish parliament.

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Its presence next to the Tricolour signalled to the world that Ireland now formally recognises the state of Palestine.

More than four hours of debate in the Dáil rubber-stamped the Cabinet’s decision to recognise Palestine as a sovereign and independent state and establish full diplomatic relations between Dublin and Ramallah.

The Taoiseach described the occasion as a proud and historic day for Ireland, a belief echoed many times by speakers during the afternoon. There were no dissenting voices.

TDs applauded when the Ceann Comhairle welcomed Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid to the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery: soon to be her country’s first ambassador to our country.

Nearby in the public gallery, members of the Palestinian community in Ireland joined long-time local campaigners for their cause. Among them was Zak Hania, the Irish-Palestinian man who finally returned to his family in Dublin last November after being trapped in Gaza for seven months.

For them, and for the politicians who spoke, it was an emotional few hours in the chamber.

But before the statements began, Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns set the tone for what was to follow.

“Symbolism and solidarity are important,” she told the Taoiseach, welcoming the Cabinet’s decision, but stressing that this significant gesture on its own is not enough. She called for punitive sanctions against Israel and the withdrawal of the Government’s support for the re-election of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“We have to talk about the reality of the hell on earth in Gaza.”

Holly need not have worried, because talk they did.

TDs tend to be circumspect about the language they use in the House and are not given to overly graphic descriptions of violent events. This time, faced with the rolling nightmare of Israeli atrocities, they made an exception.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl set some sensible ground rules at the outset with “a word or two of caution”.

While deputies understandably wanted to express horror at what was described by Holly as “the depravity” we have seen over several months in Palestine and on October 7th in Israel, they needed to clearly differentiate between Hamas and the Palestinian people, and also between the Israeli government and the Jewish and Israeli people.

He was thinking in particular of Jewish people in Ireland, “of the very small but treasured community we have in this country that we value and treasure”.

But beyond that that, the politicians didn’t hold back.

There were babies and young children among the attendance in the gallery. One little boy slept soundly in his seat for most of the proceedings, his head propped against his daddy’s arm. Sometimes the talking was punctuated by the sound an infant crying or a baby happily gurgling in her mammy’s arms.

And it was heartbreaking to think of all those little ones in Rafah and what fresh horrors might await them. Those little ones who are still alive.

“It is no longer enough just to condemn. It is no longer enough to be repulsed,” said the Taoiseach.

He was applauded after his speech when he said to the people of Palestine “in the West Bank, in Gaza, in refugee camps, in Ireland and around the world – we in Ireland see you, we recognise you, we respect you”.

Warm, strong applause too for Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

“It is never too late to say the right thing,” she remarked in a backhanded welcome for the Government’s move.

When the Taoiseach stood to make his address, not one representative of the Labour Party or Social Democrats was present, while a paltry two Government backbenchers managed to turn up

On the day, members of her party came to the chamber in numbers and maintained a strong presence throughout the long debate. Mary Lou’s little barb was understandable.

At party ardfheiseanna down the years, a representative of Palestine has always been introduced to the crowd on the night of the keynote address and received with a standing ovation. This was never a feature at the gatherings of the other big parties.

For the families in the gallery and people watching the proceedings at home, the small turnout in the chamber for what was universally acknowledged as a historic event was disappointing.

When the Taoiseach stood to make his address, not one representative of the Labour Party or Social Democrats was present, while a paltry two Government backbenchers managed to turn up.

Independent deputies were similarly thin on the ground. The numbers picked up when party spokespeople came in to speak, but the overall turnout was terrible.

Two senators – Lynn Ruane and Frances Black – came across from the Upper House to witness the occasion.

After his speech, the Taoiseach nipped upstairs to the public gallery and shook hands with some of the Palestinians, including Zak Hania.

After the party leaders made their contributions, the session settled into a familiar routine of familiar statements. Then, suddenly, a commotion erupted above in the gallery to the right of the Ceann Comhairle’s chair.

There were few in the chamber to witness demonstrators unfurl a large Palestinian flag with messages written in blood-red on lengths of white cloth.

About 10 people, mostly women, had jumped to their feet and begun to shout. “Sanctions Now!” “Stop Arming Israel”. Dáil ushers rushed to the scene as Leas-Ceann Comhairle Catherine Connolly speedily suspended the sitting.

The protesters were ushered out around the curved wall at the back of the chamber, still shouting as they were hustled downstairs and escorted outside through the Merrion Street side, where the Palestinian flag was still flying.

It was still flying a short time later after a man was intercepted trying to scale the perimeter wall in an effort to get into the grounds and remove the flag.

Back in the chamber, emotion got the better of Sinn Féin’s Thomas Gould, TD for Cork North Central.

He choked up describing the horrific brutalities visited upon the innocents on the orders of Binyamin Netanyahu and his government.

“The world stands by while 15,000 children are being slaughtered,” he quivered. “It’s unbelievable, the genocide that’s happening – and they say it’s a mistake!”

Fighting to keep back the tears, shaking with fury, he cried: “I hope Binyamin Netanyahu burns in hell the same way that them children and their families burned.” He hoped the same for his generals and his far-right government.

And, perhaps forgetting the Ceann Comhairle’s guidance at the beginning, he imploringly asked: “Where is their soul? Where is the soul of the Israeli people that allows its government to do this? Where is the humanity of the Israeli people, after everything the Jewish people have suffered over the decades, that they would allow their government to do this to other human beings?”

After the final speech, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle once more acknowledged “the soon-to-be-appointed ambassador from Palestine, the first ever. She has sat through this discussion for almost four hours, which is not easy to do given what is ongoing. I commend her for that.”

The deputies present got to their feet and applauded her. The people in the gallery applauded her, and the deputies too.

Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid’s eyes brimmed with tears.

As Gino Kenny of People Before Profit, proudly wearing a keffiyeh, said earlier: “Sometimes there are no adjectives left.”