IRA PLO 248.88.
(photo credit: Kerry Fay)
Gerry Adams' decision to meet with Hamas during his visit to the region this week will come as little surprise to those familiar with the history of Irish Republicanism's cozy relationship with Middle East terrorism. This began in the early 1970s when Muammar Gaddafi's then-terror-sponsoring regime began supplying the IRA with the financial, military and logistical assistance it required to prosecute its brutal anti-British offensive. Four Libyan arms shipments in the mid-1980s (when Adams, despite his increasingly absurd denials, sat on the IRA's ruling Army Council) proved particularly devastating, reinvigorating its floundering military campaign; a fifth, the Eksund, was intercepted by the French navy in October 1987.
By this time, contacts had been established with Hizbullah which led, intelligence sources believe, to the development of new tactics such as the "diversionary" mine attacks used with deadly effect in south Lebanon and Northern Ireland, most notoriously at Warrenpoint, County Down in 1979 where 15 British soldiers were killed. More recently, Britain has claimed that IRA-developed bomb-making technology passed on to Hizbullah has been used against its forces in Iraq.
But the most enduring regional relationship forged by the Republican movement was that with the PLO. This too dated from the early 1970s, when Fatah organized arms and terrorist training for IRA and INLA operatives in Libya and Lebanon. And while Yasser Arafat attempted to distance himself from the IRA after Lord Louis Mountbatten's murder in 1979 (although a senior IRA defector has claimed the PLO was involved in financing the attack in which two teenage boys and an 82-year-old woman were also slaughtered), IRA-PLO cooperation continued well into the 1990s.
Concerns that it persisted even after the signing of the Belfast Agreement were behind the investigation by British and Israeli security services of the possibility that the IRA either trained or actually provided the sniper who killed 10 IDF soldiers with an obsolete bolt-action rifle near Ofra in March 2002. The discovery by Paul Collinson, a British explosives expert working with the Palestinian Red Crescent, of 200 "exact replicas" of IRA-issue pipe bombs in Jenin after Operation Defensive Shield aroused further suspicions of continuing paramilitary links.
HOWEVER, MAINSTREAM Republican support for the Palestinians has been purely political since the official end of the IRA's war in 2005. Although he presides over a Sinn Fein which remains bitterly hostile to what it once termed "the obnoxious phenomenon that is Zionism," Adams, as an international peacemaker manquÃ©, personally adopts a relatively moderate tone, leaving it to his international affairs spokesman, Aengus O'Snodaigh, to articulate the party's official positions. For example, in June 2006, O'Snodaigh described Israel as "without doubt one of the most abhorrent and despicable regimes on the planet." Two months later he claimed that the Second Lebanon War was the result of "continued Israeli aggression, expansion and occupation in the region" and called for UNIFIL's deployment on the Israeli side of the Blue Line. During Operation Cast Lead he demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland and compared him to Josef Goebbels.
Sinn Fein repeatedly calls for the suspension of the EU's preferential trading agreement with the Israeli "rogue state" on the grounds of its "horrific crimes against humanity" and, in February, Adams himself launched the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' "Israel/Palestine Report" in Northern Ireland's parliament buildings, which calls for an economic, political and cultural boycott/divestment/sanctions campaign against Israel. Republicans are also prominently involved in non-party anti-Israel activism, particularly in the Belfast branch of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, where Sinn Fein cadres work alongside convicted IRA terrorists and members of dissident groups such as Eirigi.
THE STRIDENCY of Irish Republicanism's anti-Israel campaign has, unsurprisingly, given rise to accusations of anti-Semitism. Certainly, the movement is tainted with an anti-Semitic past. Arthur Griffith, who founded the original Sinn Fein movement in 1905, used the pages of his newspaper to rail against "Jew Swindledom" (9/10ths of all Jews were, he proclaimed, "usurers and parasites") and the Dreyfusards. While similar prejudices were commonplace in all the political parties which descended from his organization, only the eponymous rump which remained after the splits of 1921 and 1926 habitually preached Jew-hatred, culminating in a demand for an Irish-German alliance in 1939.
The "new" IRA, itself soaked in anti-Semitism, took a similar view and attempted to forge a working relationship with the Germans. The death of its leader, Sean Russell, on a U-boat bound for Ireland on a mission sanctioned by Ribbentrop was an early blow to its hopes; he was buried at sea with full military honors, his body wrapped in a Nazi flag (Republicans still hold an annual commemoration service for him which senior Sinn Fein members have regularly addressed). That later efforts came to nothing was due, not to any lack of will on the IRA's part, but to the chaotic state of the organization and the success of Irish intelligence in quelling subversion.
In the post-war period, anti-Jewish concerns continued to shape the worldview of many in the Republican movement. Its official newspaper, the United Irishman attacked "Jewish finance," "Judaeo-Masonic news agencies" and the Jews themselves as "the bitter enemies of Christianity," this at a time when the IRA itself was being denounced by Ireland's leading anti-Semitic ideologue, Fr. Denis Fahey, as part of a Jewish-Communist International bent on bringing Ireland under the control of "Moscow or Jerusalem." However, such criticisms did little to dull his influence on generally left-wing Republicans, whose own anti-Semitism stemmed from a belief in a Jewish-capitalist plot to take over the country. Some, most notably the Republican icon Sean South, joined Fahey's viciously anti-Semitic Maria Duce movement and became active in the 1950s in warning against such dangerous agents of the World Judaeo-Masonic conspiracy as Larry Adler and Danny Kaye!
Such overt anti-Semitism has not been a feature of Irish Republicanism since the movement regrouped in the late 1960s, but the frequency with which its anti-Israel rhetoric crosses the line of legitimate criticism leaves the impression that attitudes, at least among some, have not changed much. Graffiti supporting suicide bombers and officially sanctioned murals glorifying Palestinian terrorism ("IRA/PLO - One Struggle," "Gerry Arafat") were commonplace in Republican areas during the worst days of the second intifada, giving the Palestinian flags, ubiquitous in Republican areas, a more sinister complexion. One prominent Republican even suggested that decommissioned IRA weapons be given to the PLO for use against Israel.
Israel is continually delegitimized and demonized at Republican demonstrations and in publications such as Sinn Fein's official weekly, An Phoblacht, and the on-line journal, The Blanket where Nazi analogies have been routinely employed ("Hitler speaking Hebrew", "the Julius Streicher-type tyrant" Ariel Sharon). Anti-Semitic undertones in their whispering campaign against former Northern Ireland minister Peter Mandelson have also been cited as evidence that there may be more to all of this than anti-Zionism.
Nevertheless the Irish Republican movement can no longer be fairly described as anti-Semitic per se. Yet neither can a century-old undercurrent be lightly discounted. One way or another, this much is clear - in a century of all-consuming struggle against Britain, it has always found time to castigate the Jews.
The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is currently preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.