The emergence of Sinn Féin as a major political force in last week’s election in Ireland is a watershed in the onward march of Irish republicanism towards a united Ireland.
Like the Conservatives on the mainland, dissatisfied voters who felt left behind deserted the major parties and turned to Sinn Féin.
Even so, like the Corbynistas in the UK, Sinn Féin, in line with Irish diplomacy in general, has taken a hard, pro-Palestinian line. At the Ard Fheis (annual conference) in 2018, Sinn Féin called for Ireland’s withdrawal from the European Song Festival following Netta Barzilai’s win, since it would be held in Israel.
A strong advocate of that approach was Gerry Adams, a dominant figure in Sinn Féin during the last three decades until he stepped down two years ago. He has famously denied on innumerable occasions that he was ever a member of the IRA.
In April 2009, Adams headed a Sinn Féin delegation to Gaza and met the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. He commented afterwards: “I emphasised our opinion that dialogue, including substantive and inclusive negotiations, and a genuine peace process, is the only way forward for Palestinians and Israelis.
“The fact is that the people of Palestine and the people of Israel are destined to live side by side. I believe that most people want a peaceful accommodation.”
This differentiated him from Jeremy Corbyn who rarely advocated mediation. Remarkably in view of the partition of Ireland, Adams accepted the partition of historic Palestine into two states.
Yet the repeated confrontations between Israel and Hamas and the policies of successive Netanyahu governments seem to have hardened Adams’s stand. In 2014, he met Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and ‘Bougie’ Herzog, then leader of the Israeli Labour Party. In December 2014, following Operation Protective Edge, the Israel government denied him permission to visit Gaza.
More recently, Adams has protested about the settlement drive on the West Bank, the killing of Palestinians at the border with Gaza — and called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Ireland.
In 1994, the year of the IRA ceasefire, Adams quoted Patrick Galvin’s poem, an address to the British Army, at the end of his presidential address to the Ard Fheis:
When you came to this land, you said you came to understand.
Soldier, we are tired of your understanding,
Tired of British troops on Irish soil
Tired of your knock on the door
Tired of the rifle butt on the head
Soldier, we are tired of the peace you bring to Irish bones.
He then extended Sinn Féin’s “warmest greetings and best wishes for the future” to the Palestinians.
From Adams’s point of view, a substitution of “Palestinian” for “Irish” and “Israeli” for “British” would have made perfect sense, as Sinn Féin often viewed the conflict as Israel against Palestine rather than the peace camps in Israel and Palestine against their rejectionists. Moreover no mention was made of Galvin’s sojourn as a young man on a Labour kibbutz.
Sinn Féin today views Zionism as a colonialist exercise, yet during the 1930s, the Zionist far right regarded Sinn Féin with awe and admiration. Avraham Stern, Yitzhak Shamir and Menahem Begin all appreciated the IRA and its struggle against the common enemy, the British military presence.
It is well known that Begin was a leader of the youth movement Betar, headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky — but it is less well known that Begin personified the maximalists in Jabotinsky’s movement and not its mainstream leadership. This fundamental difference was symbolically represented by their attitudes to the Irish struggle for independence.
The Easter Rising in 1916 provided a model for many members of Betar, worth studying. Yet throughout his life, Jabotinsky virtually ignored the fight of the Irish republicans because he clearly believed that the path of armed struggle on the Irish model would not succeed in Palestine.
Jabotinsky was totally dismissive of the Easter Rising. In 1916, he was cultivating the British in the hope of establishing the Jewish Legion, and sympathy with Irish nationalism would have been counter-productive.
Jabotinsky argued in the Russian press that although Ireland’s past under British rule was traumatic and terrible, a revolution could not be undertaken simply to avenge the past. In his opinion, life was actually becoming better under British rule and Irish aspirations could be attained through non-violent means. He suggested that a Home Rule compromise was the best solution with autonomous status for the six Protestant provinces of Ulster.
Jabotinsky later instructed his followers to “learn to shoot”. Yet this was qualified — Jews should know how to defend themselves. Moreover, he warned his followers that the Irish model had also been shown to contain the seeds of civil war.
It was only in 1938 that Jabotinsky acknowledged Irish Republicanism when he met Éamon De Valera — but as the head of the Irish state rather than as an IRA revolutionary.
The Irish had opposed the proposed partition of Palestine as advocated by the Peel Commission Report in 1937 because of their own difficult experience. De Valera had addressed the Assembly of the League of Nations on the Peel Commission and strongly opposed its recommendations on Palestine. Ireland had also just introduced a new constitution; this and support for Jabotinsky was De Valera’s way of demonstrating Irish independence.
Jabotinsky saw De Valera as an interlocutor with Britain and in his discussion drew parallels between the Irish and the Jews — including the revival of Gaelic and Hebrew.
In his notes for his Dublin speech, Jabotinsky took up another theme from the Peel Commission which distanced him from Begin and the maximalists.
This was the British proposal of transferring almost a quarter of a million Arabs from the proposed Jewish state to the proposed Palestinian one. Jabotinsky commented: “It must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish State should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens.”
In October 1930, Abba Ahimeir, a central ideologist on the Zionist far right, published an article in the daily Doar Hayom, entitled “Sinn Féin”. Its emphasis on military struggle was in contrast to Jabotinsky’s liberal comments about “the conscience of the world”.
Avraham Stern of the Zionist paramilitary organisation Lehi (the “Stern Gang”) translated part of PS O’Hegarty’s book The Victory of Sinn Féin: How It Won it and How it Used it into Hebrew. The head of operations for Lehi, Yitzhak Shamir, studied Irish Republican literature during his time in the underground and adopted the name of “Michael” as his nom de guerre after Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.
The “philosophy of blood sacrifice” struck a chord among the leadership of Betar in Palestine. One essential ingredient was the importance of attacking Britain when the country was at war. Both Stern and Begin proclaimed their revolts against British rule in Palestine when the British were fighting the Nazis.
Sinn Féin may or may not be in the next Irish government in the coming days, but its current stand betrays its own history and its role in inspiring Zionist militancy.
It turns a blind eye to the uncanny similarity between the stirring proclamation of Padraig Pearse in 1916 and the rise of the Hebrew Republic in 1948: “We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a sovereign independent state and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of freedom, of its welfare and of its exaltation among the nations.”
If wisdom breaks out and the breast–beating subsides, Sinn Féin is in an important position to work for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Jewish Chronicle 12 February 2020