At a time when a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Gaza, the DUP has decided to form a “Friends of Israel” group to underscore their support for the perpetrators. This will come as no surprise to seasoned observers of Northern Ireland politics. In the land where lampposts double up as flagpoles for territorial marking purposes, loyalist areas are adorned with Israeli flags, and nationalist areas sport the Palestinian flag.
Unionism sees much in common with Zionism. The current slaughter in Gaza, the use of indiscriminate air strikes and artillery in densely populated civilian areas and the inevitable high civilian casualty rate, is the acting out of a fantasy that unionism once held. In the early 1990s one unionist politician called for “Gulf war tactics” to be used in fighting the IRA, arguing that the then-new technology of laser-guided missiles could be used to kill IRA operatives. The thought of firing cruise missiles at residential housing estates in Belfast is as ludicrous as it would be irresponsible, and the inevitable civilian death toll would set back the cause of peace by decades. The British government knew better than to resort to such outlandish and unacceptable methods, yet this is exactly what is happening in Gaza and it does not seem to bother the DUP leadership nor anyone else among Israel’s shrinking band of supporters.
The far-fetched idea that the conflict in the north could be settled by military means was one that unionism clung to for decades because, if if could be achieved, it would mean that a negotiated settlement would be unnecessary, the status quo would remain untouched, and the pesky idea of Irish nationalism would magically go away. That Israel is pursuing a policy that is making a negotiated settlement ever more difficult, civilian casualties be damned, has a certain ideological appeal for such people.
The illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is not the only unsavory cause with which unionism has aligned in its history. Unionists in 1900 identified with the British conquest of South Africa in their conflict with the Boers, ancestors of today’s Afrikaners, however in the 1980s sympathies had shifted as loyalists forged links with far right pro-apartheid Afrikaner groups and imported South African arms for Ulster Resistance, the paramilitary group founded by senior DUP members including Peter Robinson. While the international chorus got ever louder for South Africa to end apartheid and used economic sanctions to make the point, Margaret Thatcher’s government was more reticent than most to join in with the sanctions, an implicit support for the white supremacist regime that unionism was happy to stand by. Even as recently as 2013 when Nelson Mandela died, Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, a far right unionist party, denounced the media coverage of Mandela’s death as not being critical enough. He brought up the oft-repeated unionist view that Mandela was a “terrorist” who “left a trail of victims.”
Of course this does not absolve Irish nationalism. Like the rest of world opinion, Irish opposition to apartheid was not really galvanized until the Sharpville Massacre of 1960. Prior to that, attitudes were ambivalent, and further back many nationalist leaders aligned themselves with the Boers of South Africa during the late nineteenth century conflict as a means of hitting at the British empire by proxy, often fighting against British divisions that had far more Irish in their ranks. Nonetheless, attitudes evolve, and the propensity for unionism to align itself with colonizing regimes with questionable human rights records is noteworthy. It is as if wherever in the world there is an imposed state based on the supremacy of one race or religion over another, unionism will find in it a kindred spirit.
A small group in Ireland is unlikely to move the needle on the Arab-Israeli conflict; Israel’s most significant power broker remains the United States, but even here attitudes are changing. Recent polls show consistently strong support for Israel among the older generation who remember the country as a bulwark against Soviet-backed interests in the region. However younger people with no Cold War memories and with better access to international news sources are showing more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. A solid majority in America still supports Israel, but that support plunges to a quarter among people aged 18 to 29.
A Globescan/PIPA poll in 2013/2014 shows that Israel’s reputation worldwide is slipping. When asked about a range of countries and whether their influence in the world is positive or negative, Israel found itself below Russia and in the same league as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.
If unionism is to find a broader appeal, it could do well to find a way to define itself that does not invoke the image of a superior people inhabiting an island of civilization that is besieged by inferior savages. Such a worldview does not age well, and unionism should be careful about the company it keeps.