Will Sinn Féin’s ascent hurt Israel-Ireland relations? – analysis

There are two issues on the agenda when it comes to Israel and Ireland: the “Occupied Territories Bill” and possible recognition of a Palestinian state.

Flag of Ireland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Ireland
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With Sinn Féin, the political arm of the former Irish Republican Army, surging in exit polls in Saturday’s election, there is a real possibility that the next government of Ireland could take anti-Israel steps in the near future.
Sinn Féin, which has long held anti-Israel positions, reached 22.3% of the vote for the Daíl, Ireland’s lower house of parliament, the highest share of the national vote it has ever received, according to exit polls.
The radical party was nearly tied with what are traditionally the two large parties in Ireland: Fine Gael, the party of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, which received 22.4%; and Fianna Fáil, which got 22.2%.
“Fine Gael, which has been in power since 2011, has been friendlier to Israel than Fianna Fáil or, for that matter, Sinn Féin, of course, which has been known to be extremely anti-Israel and very close to the Palestinian delegation in Ireland,” said Daniela Traub, Israel’s former deputy ambassador to Ireland.
Ireland does not have proportionate voting like Israel does. It has one of the most complex vote-calculating systems, and the results do not mean that Sinn Féin will get 22.3% of the seats in the Daíl.
It is also unclear what kind of government Ireland will have after the parliamentary seats are calculated and negotiations to form a government end.
Sinn Féin is still likely to be a major player in the coming years, and they are not the only ones that can turn Ireland’s policies for the worst when it comes to Israel.
Issues relating to Israel or the Palestinians were not among the top 12 most important to Irish voters, nor did they feature prominently in election campaigns. The major issues in the election were Brexit – Ireland is the only country that shares a land border with the UK – as well as crises in housing and public services. Sinn Féin did well in the lower socioeconomic sectors.
“This has nothing to do with Israel,” said Mattan Lass, managing director of Ireland Israel Business. “People don’t vote for Sinn Féin or not based on any stance they’ve taken on Israel-Palestine… It hasn’t been an election issue ever.”
Still, Irish journalist Michael Fitzgerald said: “You never lose votes for being anti-Israel here. Just about every party supports anti-Israel measures.”
There are two issues on the agenda when it comes to Israel and Ireland: the “Occupied Territories Bill” and possible recognition of a Palestinian state.
Both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil said ahead of the election they support the bill to criminalize doing business with Israelis from the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. They also said they would recognize a Palestinian state. Both are popular positions shared by almost every party running.
If the “Occupied Territories Bill” becomes law, it could fine merchants in Ireland that sell products from the West Bank, Golan Heights or east Jerusalem for up to €250,000 or sentence them to up to five years in jail.
Sinn Féin’s election platform said it will “ban goods from Israel’s illegal colonial settlements in Palestine from entering the Irish market by implementing the Occupied Territories Bill.”
Fianna Fáil said it will “progress the Occupied Territories Bill.”
Fine Gael opposed the bill when it came to a vote in early 2019, arguing that the bill was in contravention of EU trade rules, and that Ireland would incur major fines should it become law.
However, Fine Gael had a minority government, and the bill passed several votes in the Daíl and Ireland’s Senate, the Seanad. It can be picked up where legislators left off after the election.
Should the law pass, Israel could petition the European Court of Justice on the grounds that the bill violates trade agreements.
An Israeli diplomatic source expressed great concern about the bill, saying it is “beyond BDS, trying to turn political positions into crimes.”
Analysts said the fate of the bill depends on whether Fine Gael continues to lead the government.
Traub posited that if Fianna Fáil forms the government, the bill will pass.
The bill has a good chance of passing, Fitzgerald said, adding: “Just about every party supports the Occupied Territories Bill... It passed both houses [of parliament] last time and was stopped because of a technicality.”
Lass argued said if Fine Gael forms a government it will almost certainly block the bill, but a government with Sinn Féin could pass it into law.
The issue, according to Lass, is that multinational corporations with major offices in Ireland oppose the bill.
“Ireland is heavily dependent on foreign multinationals, and a lot have significant operations in Israel, like Facebook, Google, Intel, Amazon and many others,” he said. “It is not in the DNA of the Irish government to aggravate these companies. The reason it hasn’t passed is Fine Gael doesn’t want to upset the multinationals; that’s clear.”
However, Sinn Féin wants a “strong left veer” and to raise taxes for the multinational corporations, and even Fine Gael may have to concede on this matter to get them into a coalition, Lass said.
As for recognizing a Palestinian state, the move was approved by the Seanad in 2014 but not by the government.
Fitzgerald argued that this is an easy, symbolic move that any government could take to curry favor with the overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian public.
“They love gesture politics... It’s the kind of thing they love doing here, because it shows we’re still on the side of freedom fighters and all that,” he said. “They can do that and it doesn’t cost money or get them into any problems with the EU” – unlike the boycott bill.
Lass, on the other hand, thought Ireland would not want to take the risk to recognize a Palestinian state when it is not EU policy.
“It would be out of step with our European partners, and that is not a very Irish thing to do,” he said.
In general, Fitzgerald said Israel does not need to be concerned by the election results, because of Ireland’s international standing.
“Ireland doesn’t have a lot of power in international politics,” he said. “We’re not going to get a seat in the UN Security Council.”
Lass argued that business between Israel and Ireland is “booming,” and that is unlikely to change due to the political developments.
In the past month, he pointed out, Israeli tech company Wix opened its European headquarters in Dublin, and Israeli engineering firm Meptagon acquired a Cork-based contractor, increasing its Irish workforce to 400. In addition, El Al will begin its first nonstop flight between Dublin and Tel Aviv in May.
But Jerusalem is still watching Dublin warily.
“We’re very concerned that this will have a negative impact on diplomatic relations with Ireland,” an Israeli diplomatic source said.