That an island nation set in the Atlantic to the west of Europe might have a significant connection with a Mediterranean nation in the Middle East might at first appear somewhat incongruous. However, Dr. Rory Miller in his Ireland and the Palestine Question 1948 – 2004 admirably establishes, and explains, that connection. Dr. Miller is Lecturer in Mediterranean Studies, King’s College at the University of London, and this is the first scholarly work to examine Ireland’s relationship with the Palestine question in any level of detail; and it is likely to remain the standard work on this topic for some time to come.
Miller traces Ireland’s involvement with the Palestine question through three distinct phases: from 1955 when the Republic of Ireland became a member state of the United Nations; from 1973 when the Republic of Ireland became a member state of the European Economic Community (hereafter EEC ); and from 1978 when Ireland contributed a battalion of troops to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). In his scholarly and well-researched book, Miller deals with how these factors contributed to Ireland’s significant role in the Palestine question, and also how it affected Ireland’s cultural and diplomatic relationships with Israel.
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister in the late 1950s and '60s, Frank Aiken, spent a great deal of his time at the UN General Assembly in New York and became increasingly involved with the Middle Eastern situation. As a former IRA leader who had taken a leading part in the Irish struggle for independence from Britain during the 1919-1921 period, Aiken had a considerable cachet with many of the representatives of the countries newly emerging from colonial rule in the '50s and '60s. Irish politicians like Aiken also had considerable influence in the USA and he used this to play the part of 'honest broker’. Of particular significance was how Aiken became convinced that there could be no political solution to the question before the settlement of the refugee problem. This led to a strained relationship at the UN between Ireland and Israel; two countries who having won their independence from Britain were considered to have an identity of interest.
Ireland’s profile at the UN increased during the 1960s as it became a military contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, particularly in the Congo from 1960 to 1964 and in Cyprus from 1964 to 1973. In 1969 the Irish-Palestine Society was formed and in 1971 the Irish-Arab Society opened an office in Dublin. Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 increased its involvement further from home as it became apparent that the Community was more than just an economic body, but one that was making an increasing contribution to European and Mediterranean policy.
In March 1978, following increased PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] commando raids into its territory, Israel invaded south Lebanon. The UN passed Resolution 452 calling for an Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of an interim peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and Ireland was asked to contribute an infantry battalion to the Force. Ireland had contributed a small number of unarmed officers to the Middle East UNMOGIL observer group in 1958. However, from 1978 to 2001 Ireland provided in the region of 40,000 troops to the Lebanon of whom 47 lost their lives. Most of the Irish served at their battalion area at Tibnin in south Lebanon, and Ireland also provided headquarters, signals and transport elements at the Force HQ at Naqoura. An Irish general, Lieutenant General Bill O’Callaghan, was Commander in Chief of UNIFIL in the 1980s. All of this inevitably led to a degree of sympathy by the Irish for the people of the region, and also, to a degree, towards a perception of Israel as a quasi-colonial power.
Miller treats of the influence of all of these factors on the development of Irish policy on the Palestine question. However, he is not uncritical of what he sees as the emergence of a pro-PLO position by Ireland at the beginning of the 21st century, and the degree to which that is unhelpful to what he declares to be the “…central objective of Ireland’s Middle East policy for over three decades”, viz. the emergence of a viable, sovereign, Palestine state alongside Israel.
Ireland and the Palestine Question 1948 – 2004 by Dr. Rory Miller is
Published by Irish Academic Press