Why does US treat ex-prisoners from Ireland and Palestine differently?

Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas stand at podiums with giant banner of Arafat and Abbas overhead

The Obama administration has excluded all Palestinian groups from the political process except for Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

Issam Rimawi APA images

With the Department of Homeland Security’s recent arrest of former Palestinian prisoner and current community leader Rasmea Yousef Odeh for alleged immigration fraud, it is helpful to review the history of the targeting of former political detainees by US authorities when there is a US-sponsored peace process underway.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, groups such as Irish Northern Aid and the Irish-American Unity Conference conducted support campaigns for Irish political prisoners who were undocumented immigrants or didn’t declare their jail time on immigration forms and were targeted for deportation after living quietly in the US for twenty years or more. Some actively supported equal rights for nationalists in the north of Ireland and the US-sponsored peace process then underway, while others were not politically active at all.

Before 11 September 2001, very little attention was paid to the large numbers of undocumented Irish immigrants. If one was Irish and targeted for deportation, it was because one had been a political prisoner or was active in Irish Republican politics (generally this meant supporting the use of armed struggle against the British state).

Influential politicians

During the time of the Irish peace process sponsored by the Clinton administration in the 1990s to early 2000s, Irish Northern Aid and the Irish-American Unity Conference among others argued that these former Irish political prisoners who typically supported the peace process should not be re-criminalized and should be allowed to stay.

In the course of the peace process, all of the main paramilitary groups these prisoners belonged to agreed to a ceasefire and the decommissioning of weapons, whether they supported the peace process, like the Irish Republican Army (IRA), or did not support it, like the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

The Irish-American community was mostly supportive and had influential politicians in both main parties, including Edward Kennedy, the Democratic senator, and Peter King, the Republican representative, who promoted this message. Then Senator George Mitchell, who later became Clinton’s peace envoy to Ireland, urged the president to grant Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a US visa, even before the IRA had agreed to a ceasefire.

When Clinton did so in 1994, against British objections, it demonstrated an understanding that the peace process could not advance without the recognition and inclusion of all groups, Mitchell wrote in his memoirs Making Peace.

In the case of Noel Cassidy, a former Irish political prisoner active in Irish Republican politics in the 1990s, a campaign to support him did not prevent his returning to Ireland voluntarily.

But such campaigning eventually did have an impact in 2000, when Clinton announced deportation proceedings against former IRA prisoners would be halted and given “deferred action” status.

The State Department, immigration authorities and political opposition prevented the cases from being dropped entirely.

Why was the campaign even this successful? The Clinton administration was actively engaged in a peace process in Ireland that invited all groups to be involved, including those — like the IRA — previously on the State Department’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Another key factor was the political influence of the Irish-American community.

While Clinton’s announcement about former IRA prisoners was praised as a benefit of the Irish peace process, keeping their legal status in limbo became a huge problem after 11 September 2001. Following the atrocities of that day, deportation cases of former Irish political prisoners were once again activated.

Malachy McAllister, a former member of the INLA who had served three years in prison in Ireland in the mid-1990s, fled to the US after loyalist paramilitaries shot up his home in Belfast. After living an apolitical life for many years, he became a target for deportation by the Bush administration that was going after anyone, anywhere considered a “terrorist.”

Ciaran Ferry, a former IRA prisoner released as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, came to the US when his name was found on a loyalist paramilitary hit list.

In 2003, he was arrested when he went to a review meeting about his residency status and was accused of overstaying his visa even though he had been admitted to the US under a work authorization. Eventually he was charged with lying on his immigration form about spending time in jail as an IRA member. He spent almost two years in prison before finally agreeing to be deported for the sake of his American wife and two-year-old daughter.

Near the end of George W. Bush’s second term, a group of former IRA prisoners formed their own lobbying group and with the help of Irish American groups, started a new campaign to dismiss the cases against them. There was some support from Republicans and Democrats courting the Irish-American vote.

But the biggest factor was that the Bush administration was more focused on targeting the Arab and Muslim community so the Irish ex-prisoners had their files “put at the bottom of the stack,” as one official put it, where they remain today. With influential congressional representatives and mainstream Irish-American organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians taking up his case, Malachy McAllister has had his stay in the US extended year after year with the latest extension in March of this year.

Excluding Palestinians

Another US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” is currently underway to pick up the pieces of the failed Oslo accords. But unlike Clinton’s more even-handed and inclusive policy towards the Irish peace process, the Obama administration has favored Israel by continuing to supply military aid and by excluding all Palestinian political parties and groups except one — Fatah — from the political process.

Clinton made peace in Ireland a high priority of US foreign policy while also guaranteeing political support from the influential bloc of Irish-Americans. But under Clinton, another US foreign policy focus was support for Israel. The priority of supporting Israel during the Oslo negotiations overrode any desire to be equally even-handed during this peace process.

It was the Clinton State Department which originally placed all of the major Palestinian political parties, except Fatah, on the designated list of “foreign terrorist organizations” because of their opposition to Oslo.

President Obama made a half-hearted attempt to emulate Clinton’s handling of the Irish peace process by sending George Mitchell, the negotiator of the Good Friday agreement, to Palestine on Obama’s second day in office. Yet Mitchell’s mission was doomed to fail just like every other US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process because of the US support for Israel and the blacklisting of all Palestinian political and resistance groups except one.

The Obama administration has also continued the Bush administration’s endless war on terror by targeting members of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities.

What conclusions can we draw in comparing the domestic context during the Clinton administration’s peace process in Ireland and the attempt of the Obama administration to broker peace in Palestine? For Clinton, all Irish political parties and the paramilitary groups they represented were eventually included in the peace negotiations with very few exceptions.

Irish activists in the US were typically under surveillance, but not targeted for arrest and deportation unless they were former political prisoners. The targeting of former political prisoners occurred either before the peace process was underway or after 11 September 2001 when they were swept up in the “war on terror.”

During the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under Clinton and the current efforts under Obama, there has never been a genuine attempt to include all Palestinian groups. Nor has there been an attempt to distinguish between a political party and the resistance group that party may be associated with.

Unlike Irish activists in the 1980s and ’90s, Palestine activists critical of US policy toward Israel have not only been under surveillance, but have been actively targeted for repression. From the cases of the Holy Land Five, to Sami al-Arian, to the harassment of Students for Justice in Palestine groups, to the ongoing grand jury investigation of 23 anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists, the repression has continued during the Obama administration.

Palestinians and their supporters can’t look to the Obama administration to be sympathetic to their activists or former political prisoners. We can’t expect Arab-Americans to have the political clout enjoyed by Irish-Americans, especially as Arab and Muslim communities are oppressed more generally.

Rasmea Odeh’s arrest is just the latest attack on the entire Palestinian and Arab community and part of the ongoing repression of Palestine activists. Odeh has been a community leader fighting for Arab women’s and immigrant rights in the US for more than twenty years. Any attempt to demonize her for “immigration fraud,” threatening her with ten years in prison, and revoking her citizenship is nothing other than a vindictive attempt to destroy not only a successful Arab community leader, but also a strong advocate for Palestinian rights.

Bill Chambers was a member of both Irish Northern Aid and the Irish-American Unity Conference. He is currently active with the Palestine Solidarity Group - Chicago and the Committee Against Political Repression.




Asking "why does US treat ex-prisoners from Ireland and Palestine differently" is sort of a dumb question. The situations are asymmetrical because huge voting blocks in America mildly supported to adored the IRA, while nothing like that is remotely true for the Palestinians. During Clinton's time there were about 30m Irish in America vs. 4m Irish in Ireland. America is the center of the Irish population. Hatred for the British occupation of Northern Ireland ran strong in many of America's cities and there was far more popular support for the IRA than there was for the British anti-IRA. The IRA raised money and weapons in the USA for decades. Institutionally we were pro-British and had been an ally, but on this issue we were unreliable.

America's involvement in brokering a deal was because we were genuinely seen as friendly to both sides but in different ways. Our relationship to the IRA is far more like our relationship to Israel a matter of genuine passion and affection. Our relationship to the Palestinian Authority is a formal commitment based on the Palestinians being friends with our major oil suppliers. There is almost no genuine passionate support or even much genuine desire to support the Palestinian Authority.