The US, the IRA and Israel…

I had a Facebook message from Bock this morning, noting how seemingly impossible it is to have civil and intelligent conversation about Israel/Palestine. In part, no doubt that’s because of the huge lose of life in Gaza, primarily at the hands of the IDF. But Megan McArdle reckons it’s because when nationalisms of any sort contend, sense and reason go out the window. Elsewhere she notes the similarities between the Irish Lobby with the Jewish Lobby in the States, and she highlights the former of which led her own country’s decided ambivalence towards the IRA before 9/11. To Daniel Larison, it is unsurprising:

For a country nursed on Anglophobia, Irish republicanism appeared as a sister movement to our own fight for independence. This is one reason why comparisons with the Irish republican cause could make Walt’s counterfactual stronger (i.e., political or ideological affinities with a particular group will sometimes override moral and strategic considerations). This sentiment would have continued to be extremely strong, had more significant great power priorities taken over from midcentury on.

The idea of Liberty, he reckons, is the tie that bound US sentiment to Irish Republicanism:

Our boosting of anti-British nationalists was more ideological, in that we were not imperial rivals with Britain, but it bore strong similarities to the adoration the British heaped on Abd-al Kadir when he was fighting the French and the encouragement the Germans gave to the Afrikaners and caliphalists in India. For that matter, Fenian rhetoric was always casting the cause of Irish independence as part of a universal struggle between liberty and tyranny; anyone who has ever heard “The Foggy Dew” or “A Nation Once Again” will understand this.

And there’s a nice little addendum to this argument:

In addition to the ideological affinities that Americans felt with Irish rebels, even after the British became major allies there was a concerted effort from Washington starting with FDR to dismantle the British Empire as quickly as possible. For those still interested in that agenda, the continued British control of Northern Ireland represented one of the final holdouts of the empire, so support for Irish republicanism would have followed naturally from that.

Then Jonah Goldberg refute’s McArdle’s comparison between publicly favourable sentiment towards the IRA and similarly emotive echoes in favour of Israel:

In the case of Israel, sure, I have my ethnic sympathies, but I have never made arguments for Israel based on any of them. And, truth be told, most supporters of Israel don’t make “ethnic” arguments either (which is a big hole in McArdle’s analogy to the IRA). Israel’s critics acribe such motives to Israel’s supporters, sometimes accurately to be sure. But not nearly so often in good faith. They go after the putatively ethnic motives of Israel supporters in order to avoid the public arguments of Israel supporters.

The decisive turning point was undoubtedly 9/11. It may shut down the flow of sympathy and political capital towards Ireland, but not Israel. Brendan Simms has noted:

…the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York changed everything. By chance, the US presidential envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass was meeting Gerry Adams on the very day the towers came down, and the latter was left in no doubt that the game was up for what he later revealingly dubbed “ethically indefensible terrorism”.

By contrast, as Alex Massie notes, it formed a startling disjuncture with the past:

Clinton made plenty of phone calls and a visit or two. But when push came to shove he refused to put additional pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA. Consequently the Good Friday Agreement was signed despite there being a crippling ambiguity on the question of decommissioning terrorist arms. The failure to resolve that problem would cripple the peace “settlement” for years, helping to hollow-out the centre of Northern Irish politics, leading us to the present happy state of play: government by bigots and murderers.

This wasn’t, obviously, all Clinton’s fault. Nontheless one reason Tony Blair lost faith in the american president was Clinton’s habit of promising to lean on the Republican movement and then signally failing to follow his promises with, like, actual action. The State Department may have been hostile to the IRA -it opposed giving Gerry Adams visas to enter the US – but the rest of the US government, including the likes of Tony Lake at the National Security Council was entirely sympathetic to the “cause” of Irish Republicanism.

Which brings to mind that great quote from a State Department official in Mary Alice Clancy’s thesis: “Clinton ‘is a s—t, but ultimately he is a thinking man’s s—t”.

9/11 would eventually provide the Bush White House with sufficient clarity and purpose to drive on from the legacy position bequeathed them by Clinton. It didn’t happen right away. Clancy again:

“It appears that Haass’s concerns about dissidents most likely stemmed from his growing relationship with Adams, as officials have admitted that raising the spectre of dissidents was one of Adams’s key negotiating strategies.”

Yet when Bush eventually replaced Haass, Mitchel Reiss was to play a critical role in fixing the final deal in a complex four or five way power game. In an influential series of interviews with key players in 2006, Irish Times journalist Frank Millar drew this typically steely response to Gerry Adams’ assertion that the Bush administration had little or no say in the endgame:

“I think what Gerry Adams said about my not having any authority in Northern Ireland is absolutely correct, and that the key decisions are going to be made by the political parties and the two governments. But I think it’s also correct to say that the United States does have a fair amount of influence, and it’s how we decide to use and leverage that influence that defines the role we play in the peace process.”

He goes on to explain just why, for instance, he’d chosen to cut Sinn Fein off from its fund raising activities in the US:

…this really isn’t about fundraising at all. It’s all about giving the decent, law-abiding people in republican and nationalist communities the type of police service they deserve, so that they’re not confined to ghettoes. It’s about policing, it’s about normality, about having a police service that reflects the personality and the wishes of people of the communities.

The truth is that in the concluding stages of the Northern Irish Peace Process, there was a endgame in hand and a constructive role for the US to play… As I have argued elsewhere, there is no such role available to them in Gaza until real and sustained political leadership emerges from both sides of that conflict…

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  • andy

    Not sure about Goldberg’s point. I can see what he is saying, but I think he maybe misses the point that people can pick a rationale that suits their inbuilt (ethnic? ) prejudices.

    Is it really a coincidence that large numbers of supporters of irish republicanism are of Irish descent or that large numbers of Israeli supporters are Jewish? (I accept that the US may be a bit different re: Israeli support, and of course there is a range of Jewish opinion on Israel)

  • KieranJ

    No comparison at all. Simply ignorant folks plucking at straws in an attempt to find one. I come from an old Irish American family in Pennsylvania and I can tell you that Ireland never received a dime in aid from the United States government or taxpayers while it was fighting for its independence.

    On the other hand, the Jewish state receives over three billion dollars a year from Uncle Sugar. Oh, and have you seen the F-16 jets that are bombing the bejesus out of Gaza? Well, they’re a gift from the United States too.

    Any attempt at trying to tie the two situations together is just plain silly.

  • OC

    I, too, come from an Ulster Presbyterian background whose family still lives on land patented in Pennsylvania in 1701.

    The US gov’t has been heavily lobbied over the years by supporters of Irish republicanism, and Jewish Zionism.

    I wonder what was the position of the Irish-American community re the creation of the State of Israel in 1948?

  • David

    One factor that is entirely missing from this analysis is any questioning of why some conflicts are more prominent on the political agenda internationally than others.

    Think of Darfur, Tibet, or Sri Lanka. Here are 3 conflicts which are a lot more bloody than Israel/Palestine, yet they do not have big partisan political lobbies spinning for them. In ethnic terms, I am sure that there are plenty of $
    ethnic Tamils and Chinese in the USA, yet we don’t hear them lobbying. On the other hand when Yugoslavia broke up there was quickly a pro-Bosnian lobby in existence in DC, where there had not been one before.

  • Mick Fealty

    Some (though clearly not all) of the answer to that is self evident David.

    In this case, the self interest of an American federal government to engage directly with the interests of certain domestic ethnic lobby groups, as well as its own ideological mores…

  • Jimmy Sands

    Where the comparison breaks down is that the US regards it as vital to its own interest to maintain a militarily powerful ally in the region. No such consideration ever applied to Ireland.

  • fair_deal

    I am surprised that considering the events that led to the establishment of Israel, particularly the post WWII period that the political camps here have adopted the positions they have so easily.

  • andy

    Yes- you may know that Robert Briscoe was an early gunrunner to both the old IRA and hagannah, and i believe the latter looked up a bit to that organisation – Yitzhak Shamir certainly did.

    I wonder what the Shukris made of all the stars of David? Bit of an identity crisis, surely?

  • andy

    sorry i meant people in the hagannah looked up the old ira.

  • Greenflag

    kieran j ,

    ‘I can tell you that Ireland never received a dime in aid from the United States government or taxpayers while it was fighting for its independence. ‘

    True however individual Americans did contribute to the many fund raising efforts made in the States during that period . Had it not been for such financial support including that won by the Briscoes – the Irish Free State might not have come into existence . The US Government did however not restrict the efforts of Irish nationalists during that period to collect funds on behalf of the Irish national struggle .

    Ireland was never militarily important to the USA -still isn’t which is why we still get to remain outside NATO while others have to ‘join’ up .

  • niall

    This is a fraudulent comparison

    The Irish Lobby is nothing compared to the Israeli Lobby. NOTHING.

    Whatever Irish people think about a special relationship with the US the fact is that it is the UK who are the ally.

    US govt policy was supportive of an end to the conflict here but like everyone else they had o idea what they could do and more importantly no idea why they would be getting mixed up in a UK internal affair.

    As for the “mythical” Irish American support for the IRA, in my experience it is limited to a very small number of people.

    As for Israel the position of the US is support for a real country which is their ally and under threat.

    To compare the two Lobby groups is a gross and deliberate lie.

    The “Irish Lobby” if it even exists has limited influence even on any affairs, indeed the remarkable thing about Irish Americans is their lack of interest in the politics beyond the US in my experience. Someone getting loaded on paddies day and generally hoping for decent things for Ireland is hardly comparable with a Lobby that concerns itself with the very existence of their homeland.

    IT really really is a pointless comparison. The US relationship with Israel is going to define a lot world politics for the next century at least.

  • I am sure that there are plenty of $
    ethnic Tamils and Chinese in the USA

    Perhaps in terms of the USA, but fundraising among the British Tamil community has been extremely important to the LTTE. The British Tamil community is small in terms of the UK overall, and in electoral terms heavily concentrated in a handful of South London seats with a bewilderingly complex ethnic make-up (largely Mitcham and Morden, Wimbledon, Kingston and Surbiton and into the fringes of Tooting IIRC). They are of marginal importance compared to the Irish and Jewish vote in the states.

    However, in Tamil terms, they are by far the largest and wealthiest part of the Tamil diaspora. Also, a bit like American Jews, they are something of a ‘model’ minority – high levels of education, increasingly high earners, low crime rates. But very small compared with the comparators you are using.

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘The Israel Lobby’ by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt is an excellent analysis of the strength of pro-Israel sentiment in many powerful disparate organisations. Its as much the threat (prob more so) of what they can do to the career of a politican in the US as opposed to what they actually do do, which is interesting. There is an argument also, that Israel is no longer a strategic asset to the USA and its more the moral issue which pushes much of US favouritism of Israel.

  • 33rd County

    I agree niall with your assessment that Irish American support for the IRA is very limited to a few small enclaves of the population, however I think that a great deal more of Irish Americans understand why the IRA chose the path it did.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Where the comparison breaks down is that the US regards it as vital to its own interest to maintain a militarily powerful ally in the region. No such consideration ever applied to Ireland”

    Er Jimmy, the Americans [b]did[/b] have a militarily powerful ally in this region, it was called the United Kingdom, that’s why the Americans paid no heed to what went on in Northern Ireland other than to back up the Brits at every opportunity.

  • OC

    “Americans paid no heed to what went on in Northern Ireland other than to back up the Brits at every opportunity.”

    Posted by Harry Flashman on Jan 16, 2009 @ 02:07 AM

    I’m not sure sure that I agree. The gov’t allowed funds to be raised to arm the IRA in the 1970’s and on. Happened back in the early 1900’s as well.

    There was no US lobby to support NI unionists. But if a politician crossed the Irish-American lobby…

    There was even a military campaign launched from the US by the IRB (iirc) against Canada. The US gov’t was a tad miffed that the UK flirted with recognizing the Confederacy, and allowed it some leeway.

  • KieranJ

    “There was no US lobby to support NI unionists.”

    Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

    I give up.

  • As a Southern Irish immigrant in the U.S., my experience with sympathy/support for the cause of Irish nationalism is that it’s not just confined to Irish Americans. I live in an area that’s not heavily Irish and once the locals know my nationality, I immediately hear diatribes about the nasty Brits and how much they love the Irish. One Episcopalian with no Irish heritage proudly told me how she supported Noraid. I soon put her straight.

    Regarding the relationship between the U.S. and Ireland and Britain. With Britain, it’s strategic. With Ireland, it’s blood and emotion. With Israel, it’s strategic, blood and emotion (albeit from a narrow but influential base).

  • fair_deal


    “Yes- you may know that Robert Briscoe was an early gunrunner to both the old IRA and hagannah, and i believe the latter looked up a bit to that organisation – Yitzhak Shamir certainly did.”

    I knew the Shamir stuff but not the Briscoe link.

    For a time in the post war period the ‘looking up’ was reversed after Israel was established, republicans looked up to Zionism but then the leftist influence led to adopting the pro-Palestinian position. If you dig deep enough in the Linenhall Library you can find the stuff.

  • Harry Flashman

    “I’m not sure sure that I agree. The gov’t allowed funds to be raised to arm the IRA in the 1970’s and on.”

    In much the same way that British Intelligence lets the crazies in London mosques rant away so that they can watch who is doing what where, so the US authorities were happy to allow the usual whip-arounds in bars in Boston and New York so they could see who the players were and then pounce when they made their moves.

    In the very early part of the Provos’ campaign they were able to get their hands on Armalites (not difficult as there were hundreds of thousands of them floating around during the Vietnam War) but from then on most of the big arms operations were busted spectacularly by the US authorities, think of the Stinger missile scoops, the QE2 operation and the Marita Anne, the Provos got six M-60’s out in the late ’70s and they went on like all their Christmases had come at once.

    No, the really big arms shipments came from the Middle East and that explains US government, if not popular, hostility to the IRA. In the US it amounted to little more than sentiment, it was Ghaddafhi who came up with the goods.

  • niall

    The Irish Lobby seems to basically be Niall O’Dowd. A great and decent man no doubt but hardy the Israeli Lobby?

    And he was in opposition to the violence. Who ever went to the US govt and asked for endorsement of the physical force tradition in Ireland? (in the troubles)

  • ‘The Irish Lobby seems to basically be Niall O’Dowd. A great and decent man no doubt’
    Are you Niall O’Dowd?

  • Clay Davis

    Niall O’Dowd

    A great and decent man? Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeet.

  • Avon_Barksdale

    He ain’t nuffin but a low rise hopper.

  • Comrade Stalin

    In terms of the USA :

    – it’s not true to say that they have consistently taken the British side. The decision to grant a travel visa to Gerry Adams was opposed by the British. There have been individual senior politicians in the USA, like Peter King, who have quite openly expressed their support for paramilitarism and their opposition to the RUC. It is true, though, that since then the Americans and British have worked closely.

    – regarding the transfer of arms from the USA, my recollection is that the FBI investigated many of them and had them shut down. The issue that was never really addressed effectively by any of the three governments was the fundraising activity. The British have more recently tightened up electoral laws against party fundraising from outside the state, but guess who lobbied them very, very hard to grant an exception to Northern Ireland ?

    – NI unionists do have supporters in the USA. Places like South Carolina. I had a conversation years ago with a person there who supported loyalist paramilitaries. The person was somewhat naive about the reality of events on the ground, and the nature of the conflict, but then again that was true of the Irish-American lobby which incorporated many people who should have known better.

    – I’m not surprised that republicans initially identified with Israel, since the origins of that state come from the Irgun attacking British targets in the Palestinian Mandate.

    – a lot of Americans are not aware of the details of the situation here and sometimes organizations like NORAID (who are opposed to the present peace arrangement, probably because it removes their need to exist) are able to persuade people who would otherwise be very sensible about the justification for their cause. The majority of all Americans I’ve encountered have been more than happy to be corrected on this when they are informed of the true nature of the IRA and Sinn Fein, especially when this is put into context vis. the true nature of the unionists and loyalist paramilitaries.

  • 6cp

    A couple of the keys sentences in George Bush’s final speech were: “good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.” Americans can never afford to grow complacent, and, above all, must “maintain our moral clarity,”

    A Washington Post editorial entitled Mr Bush at his best and worst” makes the following interesting comment on the speech: He was and is essentially correct to define Islamist terrorism as an unappeasable menace. I think that relates to Hamas as well.

    The first paragraph goes: In those few sentences, Mr. Bush encapsulated both what was valuable in his approach to national security and foreign policy — and what has been so very troubling. He was and is essentially correct to define Islamist terrorism as an unappeasable menace. His certitude amid the crisis of 9-11 helped galvanize the initial national response, including the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Alas, that same certitude led Mr. Bush down many blind alleys and, in the worst moments, caused him to debase his country’s moral currency. In rejecting the Geneva Conventions, he seemed not to realize that the world, even those parts of it that were friendly toward the United States, does not assume American righteousness — and that even a necessary counterattack against al Qaeda and other enemies must therefore be constrained by law. History may credit him for avoiding a second attack on U.S. soil, but not for his handling of Guantanamo or “enhanced interrogation.”

    What struck me most was the fact that the negative aspect of the comment was written only a day or so after Obama officials indicated that he will be keeping his options open on the possible use of “enhanced interrogation.”. Apparently the writer of the editorial was not aware of Mr Obama’s new position cleverly concealed by the title of an AP report: Obama ready to ban harsh interrogations.

    Mr Obama is ready to ban harsh methods, ‘However, Obama’s changes may not be absolute. His advisers are considering adding a classified loophole to the rules that could allow the CIA to use some interrogation methods not specifically authorized by the Pentagon, the officials said.’

    The AP report starts with: President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to prohibit the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques by ordering the CIA to follow military rules for questioning prisoners, according to two U.S. officials familiar with drafts of the plans. Still under debate is whether to allow exceptions in extraordinary cases.

    What is the difference between that and Bush’s actions. Waterboarding has only been used 3 times, all in extraordinary circumstances? Obama is becoming more and more like Bush all the time.

    Imitation, I suppose, is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • Comrade Stalin

    6cp, I’m inclined to agree with the last part. Obama’s going to disappoint a lot of people. Anyone expecting some sort of radical turn will be disappointed (although it is more likely that he will be forced to grapple healthcare problems than any of his predecessors). Additionally, anyone expecting a quick end to the financial crisis once he takes power will also be disappointed.

    OTOH, while radical Islam may be unappeasable, that does not mean that diplomatic methods cannot be used to counter it. People are turning to radical Islam because of the perceived injustice of Western-sponsored activity in different parts of the world. It’s the same thing that led otherwise reasonable people to support the Nazis; and it wasn’t necessary to exterminate all Germans to put a stop to the advance of the third Reich.

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘People are turning to radical Islam because of the perceived injustice of Western-sponsored activity in different parts of the world.’

    Comapnero, just wondering what you think about the Arab street Vs Arab basement ( or islamic street vs islamic basement) theory of Rami Khouri?

  • runciter

    Waterboarding has only been used 3 times

    This seems hard to believe.

    Do you have a reliable source for this claim?