Irish anger over Gaza may spoil Biden's St Patrick's Day party

A White House boycott by some Irish politicians underscores America's different approach to conflict resolution in Palestine and Northern Ireland

US President Joe Biden and Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar pictured at a White House St Patrick's Day reception on March 17 last year. Pictures of Mr Varadkar handing over a glass bowl of shamrocks to Mr Biden this year will emerge while the US-backed war in Gaza rages on. AP
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Ireland celebrates its national holiday St Patrick’s Day this weekend. Tens of thousands of tourists will descend upon Dublin for the annual parade. Meanwhile, many members of the Irish government will be overseas, engaging with the Irish diaspora and in high-level diplomacy in national capitals around the world, from Paris to Singapore to Buenos Aires.

The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, will be in Washington and attend a meeting with the most powerful Irish American: US President Joe Biden. But with Israel’s military continuing its war in Gaza with American backing, resulting in the deaths of more than 31,000 Palestinians so far, there have been calls from Irish citizens and opposition politicians for the government to boycott the high-octane St Patrick’s Day celebrations this year in protest.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, Paul Murphy, a left-wing member of Ireland’s parliament, criticised Irish politicians for planning to meet Mr Biden and said: “There should be no shamrocks for the US administration as long as they support this genocide.”

Mary Lou McDonald, Ireland’s leader of the opposition and the head of the political party Sinn Fein (which operates in Ireland and Northern Ireland in the UK), has said that she will attend the celebrations in the White House but that it will be an opportunity to send “a very clear message” to US leaders over the situation in Gaza and the need for a ceasefire.

The mere presence of politicians from Sinn Fein at the White House underscores the starkly different approach that the US has taken to conflict resolution in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in comparison with Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, now the largest political party in Northern Ireland and joint largest in the Republic, once served as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The militant group drew its members from the Catholic community and fought a bloody guerrilla campaign to oust British forces from Northern Ireland that resulted in the deaths of many civilians (both Catholic and Protestant), as well as soldiers.

The Clinton administration’s controversial decision in the 1990s to invite figures associated with the Irish republican movement to the US, despite an IRA bombing campaign in the UK, was viewed as an important step in encouraging IRA members away from armed struggle and towards the peace process – of which Mr Biden has been a vocal supporter.

Just last year, Mr Biden said he visited Northern Ireland “to make sure the Brits didn’t screw around” with the region’s peace process. However, Mr Biden’s government has put little effort into safeguarding the minuscule rights and powers Palestinians gained under the Oslo Accords, with settler violence and settlement construction rapidly increasing in the occupied West Bank.

Since declaring that Hamas must be eliminated following its bloody October 7 attack in southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people, Mr Biden has reiterated the US’s position that the militants must be removed from Gaza and can form no part of a post-war Palestinian government.

Mr Biden said he visited Northern Ireland last year 'to make sure the Brits didn’t screw around' with the region’s peace process, but his government has put little effort into safeguarding the minuscule rights Palestinians gained under Oslo

Some argue that the popularity of Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, may have even risen among Palestinians since the start of the war. As Columbia University professor Page Fortna noted in an opinion piece in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Israeli belief that Palestinians will blame Hamas for their misery is misguided. According to Prof Fortna’s research on the dynamics of support and legitimacy in conflict “when people are under bombardment and siege, they rally around those fighting for and dying with them. Hamas's own culpability for provoking the disaster doesn't matter”.

A governing authority without Hamas involvement could lack legitimacy among many Palestinians and the group’s exclusion could sow the seeds of a future insurgency. This may explain reports that Arab negotiators have mooted the idea of encouraging the incorporation of Hamas’s political wing into the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as part of a peace settlement. This would allow it to be tacitly connected with a post-war Palestinian governing structure even if Hamas members do not form part of the initial government.

Joining the PLO would likely require Hamas to renounce any armed struggle that could undermine security for both the new Palestinian governing authority and the Israeli state – although whether Israel would accept a reconfigured and potentially more empowered Palestinian governing authority without significant pressure from the US remains to be seen.

Elections held in Northern Ireland after the 1998 peace agreement brokered by the US led to Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, becoming Minister for Education in a power-sharing arrangement with pro-British unionist parties. A fragile and imperfect peace followed. There have beenseveral long breakdowns in relations between nationalist and unionist parties while splinter groups from the IRA have launched sporadic but deadly attacks on civilians and security forces.

But last year, for the first time in Northern Ireland since records began in 1969, there were no deaths linked to terrorism, sectarian strife or security force activity – a long-awaited dividend from a peace process that required many politicians to take political risks in order to give militant groups a viable pathway out of violence.

Michelle O’Neill, the current First Minister for Northern Ireland and Vice President of Sinn Fein, recently said on British television that Hamas will eventually be regarded as a partner for peace in the Middle East – provoking outcry in Israel. The daughter of a former IRA prisoner turned Sinn Fein politician, Ms O’Neill will attend the St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House. Her view on the possibility of dialogue with Hamas will no doubt jar with many Irish Americans, who are are viewed as more conservative than the Irish on the island of Ireland.

Pictures of Mr Varadkar handing over a glass bowl of shamrocks to Mr Biden will emerge while the US-backed war in Gaza rages on. This will no doubt attract some criticism, but the presence of Sinn Fein at the White House celebrations may well make more of a statement about what a sustainable path to peace looks like than a boycott.

Published: March 15, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: March 21, 2024, 5:46 PM