ian paisley .
(photo credit: AP)
The Northern Ireland Friends of Israel marked its launch in Belfast last week with addresses from trade unionists, politicians and community leaders, including veteran unionist Rev. Ian Paisley.
Paisley, "the controversial firebrand preacher turned peacemaker," in NIFI's words, spoke of the similarities between the struggles of Israel and of Northern Ireland against terrorism, prayed for peace in Jerusalem and called for peace in the Middle East akin to the past few years of calm Northern Ireland has enjoyed due to power sharing between his Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish Republican Sinn Fein.
Paisley, who turns 83 on April 6, spoke at Great Hall Stormont on March 12, the seat of the Northern Ireland government, last Thursday. He is a British MP and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and a former Northern Ireland cabinet member.
More than 200 people attended, including Northern Ireland government ministers, British MPs, and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Also in attendance were members of the Belfast Jewish community and representatives of Christian groups.
There has been a upswing in anti-Israel activity in Northern Ireland recently, according to attorney Steven Jaffe, the lead organizer of the launch, who represents Belfast on the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
"Three local authorities passed resolutions boycotting Israel, as did the Irish Congress of Trade Unions," Jaffe said on Wednesday.
Since the 1970s, the IRA has supported the Palestinians, "both regarding themselves as freedom fighters," he said.
Despite this, "Northern Ireland is a very Bible-orientated community. There are more pilgrim tours from Northern Ireland than from any other part of the UK. The people here feel a very strong connection to Israel," he said.
Protestant trade unionist Terry McCorran co-organized the event. He is a member of UNISON - The Public Service Union, the second largest trade union in the United Kingdom, with more than 1.3 million members.
McCorran was inspired to help Israel after speaking with an Israeli trade unionist at a trade union's congress at which it was decided to boycott the Jewish state because of the recent military operations in Gaza, Jaffe said.
"The NIFI are dedicated to fostering better relations between Northern Ireland and Israel," Jaffe said. "We want to make sure Israel has a fair airing in the local media, a major issue in the UK, and we want to engage meaningfully with anyone committed to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
"There are many parallels between the Northern Ireland peace process and that in the Middle East. The differences are key in addressing that conflict," he added. "This isn't just a Jewish initiative."
Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, addressed the launch meeting, leaving "no doubt as to the nature of Hamas and its desire to destroy Israel."
"Clearly Hamas would have to change greatly before it could be admitted into the peace process," he said.
"The great thing about this event," Grunwald told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, "was that in the seat of power, a large almost entirely non-Jewish audience gathered in support of Israel. "
"Good news about Israel in the UK should be broadcast as widely as the bad. The great news here in Northern Ireland is that we have launched a group of friends of Israel, which combines grassroots commitment with the support of political leaders," Jaffe said.