Why have Ireland’s Greens broken Palestine pledge?

Joe O’Brien from Ireland’s Green Party would not be willing to support a ban on Israel’s settlement goods if it meant losing his ministerial post. 

Brian Lawless PA Wire/ZUMA Press

Ireland’s Green Party pledged not so long ago to hold Israel accountable for its crimes.

The manifesto on which the Greens fought a February general election supported a ban on the importation of goods from Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Some members of the party have made a point of gaining direct knowledge about Palestine. At least two of the 12 Greens who won parliamentary seats this year previously spent time in the West Bank as human rights monitors.

The two lawmakers in question – Joe O’Brien and Patrick Costello – found themselves on opposite sides after the Greens’ leadership decided to form a government with the right-wing parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. O’Brien supported joining the coalition, whereas Costello opposed doing so.

In entering a right-dominated government, the party accepted a legislative program which – at the behest of Ireland’s foreign minister and top Fine Gael negotiator Simon Coveney – omitted the Greens’ demand for a ban on Israel’s settlement goods. Their election promise was thereby torn to shreds.

Joe O’Brien has been appointed a junior minister for community development and charities in the new government.

He has already displayed a degree of independence. During the summer, he abstained in a vote on new legislation concerning rent and evictions, citing concerns that it would exacerbate Ireland’s homelessness crisis.

O’Brien was penalized by the Greens for not voting with the government on that occasion. His right to speak in Dáil Eireann, the lower house in Ireland’s parliament, the Oireachtas, was withdrawn for a short period.


Asked for a comment, O’Brien described Israel’s military occupation “as one of the worst injustices in the world because of its sustained, deliberate and sophisticated oppression of a whole group of people.”

O’Brien was a coordinator with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a human rights group, between 2010 and 2013.

He campaigned for a ban on Israel’s settlement goods in that capacity. O’Brien has long contended that as Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank violate international law, goods produced in those settlements are by definition illegal.

By his account, O’Brien also was the first member of the Greens to propose that banning such goods should be a policy objective for the party.

In the last Dáil term, the Greens and all the other parties then in opposition backed the Occupied Territories Bill, legislation enabling a ban on settlement goods. Yet despite winning majorities in both houses of the Oireachtas, the then-government – led by Fine Gael – blocked that bill’s implementation.

O’Brien claimed that Ireland had refused to ban settlement goods mainly because of US pressure.

“I don’t think it was wholly unreasonable to suspect that the US administration could have punished Ireland for a move on illegal settlement produce, especially under the guise of other issues, namely our corporation tax rules which benefit Ireland to the disadvantage of the US,” O’Brien stated.

Despite his record of defending Palestinian rights, O’Brien made it clear that he would not be willing to risk disapproval from his own party by taking a strong stance against Israel’s settlement activities.

O’Brien argued that “I will need to vote with the government position” if the Occupied Territories Bill or a similar law comes before the current Dáil “even if it means voting against” a ban on settlement goods.

After defying government instructions on the recent rent and evictions debate, “it’s clear that I will lose my ministerial role if I don’t vote with the whip again,” O’Brien stated by email.

O’Brien added that it would be “more useful for the Palestinians over the next four years” if Ireland has “a junior minister advocating for the Palestinian cause” than someone who no longer holds a ministerial post. As he does not expect a ban on settlement goods to be approved by the Dáil during its current term, O’Brien suggested that there would be little point in losing his position by voting for one.

The excuses he has offered for not sticking to his principles are unconvincing.

Demonstrating solidarity with an oppressed people requires listening to them.

Flunking the solidarity test

For the past 15 years, a broad coalition of Palestinian trade unions, political parties, women’s rights, environmental and other campaign groups have demanded boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The BDS call is an appeal for action, not insipid expressions of sympathy.

Ireland’s Greens can only display real solidarity with Palestinians if they insist on banning settlement goods and then support other methods of boycotting and isolating Israel. O’Brien would flunk the solidarity test if he refuses to get tough with Israel over a fear of being demoted.

O’Brien’s colleague Patrick Costello has also taken part in a trip to the West Bank arranged by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.

Costello has recently protested how the travel firm Airbnb seeks to profit from Israel’s colonization of the West Bank.

In a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, Costello drew attention to how Airbnb offers holidays in Israel’s illegal settlements.

Costello accused Airbnb of “inaccurate and misleading advertising.”

By conducting a quick search, he found 20 listings for settlements which are falsely labeled as being in Israel on the Airbnb website.

Airbnb’s headquarters for Europe, the Middle East and Africa are located in Dublin.

According to Costello, the firm is in breach of Ireland’s national code for advertisements, which requires firms to present accurate information.

Free vote?

Costello’s complaint is an important initiative. Yet it is no substitute for more decisive action such as a ban on settlement goods.

Would Costello be prepared to support the Occupied Territories Bill or comparable legislation if it is proposed?

To do so, he indicated, it would be necessary that all three government parties allow a free vote. Lawmakers would then be able to vote with their consciences and not be punished for disobeying orders.

“We are in a government that’s shaky and it’s very hard,” Costello said by telephone. “It’s one of the reasons that I personally did not want to enter this coalition.”

The Occupied Territories Bill was originally sponsored by Frances Black, a well-known singer and a member of the Seanad, the upper house in the Oireachtas.

Black is continuing to push for a ban on settlement goods. She is in discussions with Palestine solidarity campaigners who wish to see her bill reintroduced in the Oireachtas.

“We must never, ever give up hope and we should continue to fight for the human rights of the Palestinians,” Black said in an interview. “They have huge support here in Ireland. The people are behind them. We must never give up the support and solidarity we have for the basic human rights of Palestinians. And I am not going to give up on the Palestinian people.”

The same cannot be said for the Irish Greens, who broke an election pledge to ban settlement goods so that they could enjoy the perks of being in government. If principles mean anything to them, Green lawmakers must demand genuine action against Israel regardless of whether doing so hurts their own careers.

Ciaran Tierney is an award-winning blogger and a former newspaper journalist. Twitter: @ciarantierney. Website: ciarantierney.com.

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.