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DUBLIN — Sinn Féin, the nationalist party on course to top the polls in Ireland’s next election, is embracing Palestinians and condemning Israel as it builds populist appeal in a land where Jews are a tiny minority.
This didn’t always look inevitable — despite Sinn Féin’s decades-old alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Until recently, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had been pushing a more nuanced line on Gaza, reflecting Sinn Féin’s ambitions of gaining power in the Republic of Ireland for the first time ever as it continues to grow from its Northern Ireland base.
Keen to keep punching above their weight on the world stage, Sinn Féin leaders have been reluctant to alienate Israel’s key backers in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and on Capitol Hill. Those links with Washington have been carefully cultivated since the 1990s, when U.S. support helped Sinn Féin escape its status as a political pariah bogged down by Irish Republican Army (IRA) bloodshed.
With the IRA firmly in the rearview mirror, Sinn Féin is confident of winning the most seats in the Dáil Éireann parliament whenever the next general election is called, most likely in late 2024. The party has been buoyed by years of opinion polls putting them far ahead of the traditional center-ground parties of government, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Yet even McDonald concedes Sinn Féin will almost certainly require at least one coalition partner to govern — and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been quick to brand her party a reckless movement still unfit for office.
Both establishment parties gained fresh ammo for that argument when McDonald’s carefully-calibrated position on Gaza unraveled at the weekend, at Sinn Féin’s annual conference. The gathering was dominated by grassroots demands for a tougher line on Israel and its backers in Washington, Brussels and London.
Expelling Israel’s ambassador
The 1,200-strong conference crowd saved its biggest ovations for a speech by the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Ireland, Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, who said Israel was turning Gaza into “hell on earth.” The crowd chanted “Free Palestine!” as the ambassador wiped away tears and received hugs from McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s top politician in Northern Ireland.
Hours later, as McDonald concluded the conference with a nationally-televised speech, she added a key line into her advance script — calling for Israel’s ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, to be expelled.
Sinn Féin leaders had spent weeks avoiding this commitment, telling lower-ranking members they must not support such motions at local council level. But the mood has decisively shifted in a movement that, given its feud-prone background, is determined to avoid internal splits.
Before McDonald spoke, a string of grassroots speakers called for more support for all Palestinian groups, including Hamas prisoners in Israel, and for Erlich’s removal. Some sniped at Biden and America too.
“Her [Erlich’s] credibility is buried under the rubble of Gaza. And the Washington government are culpable as well. They armed, funded and gave cover to Israeli crimes against humanity,” said Daithí Doolan, a Dublin councillor.
“Israel cannot bomb Hamas out of existence. The children of the last major bombardment of Gaza in 2014 are the Hamas fighters of today. The children of the bombardment today will sadly be the fighters of 10 years from now,” said Ciarán Ó Meachair, a Sinn Féin activist from south Dublin.
McDonald, seated at the top table, spoke last.
“The world sees Israeli actions for what they are — barbaric, hateful, cowardly war crimes,” McDonald told the crowd.
“The Irish government must take the lead and refer Israel to the International Criminal Court, and send the Israeli ambassador home!” McDonald declared, her policy shift triggering a standing ovation and the biggest cheers of her entire half-hour address.
‘We need to keep communication open’
Among those applauding was her predecessor and mentor as Sinn Féin chief, Gerry Adams, who wore a black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh as a makeshift scarf. He adopted the same look when visiting Hamas leaders in Gaza in 2009.
Sinn Féin is forcing Gaza higher up Ireland’s political agenda this week. Its latest parliamentary motion, introduced Tuesday night, calls on the Irish government to petition the International Criminal Court in The Hague to open a war crimes investigation against Israel. It’s also backing another opposition party’s motion seeking the Israeli ambassador’s expulsion. Lawmakers will vote on both measures Wednesday night.
Before Tuesday’s debate, McDonald met the father and sister of Emily Hand, an 8-year-old Irish-Israeli girl believed to have been kidnapped, along with an estimated 240 others, by Hamas militants on October 7. Her mother was killed in the attack.
After meeting the Hands, McDonald declared: “Ireland must make every effort and use every political and diplomatic channel to secure Emily’s release and that of all hostages.”
The government parties counter that for precisely this reason Sinn Féin’s Gaza policy is incoherent — demanding diplomacy while seeking to sabotage it.
Simon Harris, a senior government minister with Fine Gael, said severing diplomatic relations with Israel would needlessly complicate efforts to help Emily Hand and about 40 Irish citizens currently resident in Gaza, most of them working for Western aid agencies.
“If we expel the Israeli ambassador, the immediate next action would be to expel the Irish ambassador from Israel, at a time when we are trying to get our citizens out of Gaza, at a time when we need to keep communication open,” Harris said.
Sinn Féin’s call to expel Erlich has also raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Richie Neal, a Democrat lawmaker from Massachusetts who co-chairs the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus and has long had friendly relations with Sinn Féin, told POLITICO he would not support such a move.
“Governments get to appoint who they want to be advocates in foreign capitals,” he said. “There are probably a lot of ambassadors that I might disagree with here [in Washington], but I would not call for their expulsion.”
Neal stressed, however, it was “not for me to intervene in their own politics,” and noted the pushback from other parties in Ireland. He downplayed the idea the move would impact the U.S. relationship: “The issues are very separate.”
Isolation and insecurity
Meanwhile, for Ireland’s approximately 2,500 Jews — constituting barely 0.05 percent of the population — Sinn Féin’s increasingly anti-Israel stance adds to a wider sense of isolation and insecurity.
The night before McDonald’s speech, Erlich told a commemoration of Kristallnacht — the night in 1938 when Nazis attacked thousands of Jewish properties across Germany — that too many people in Ireland today were justifying the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7 or even “claiming they never happened.”
Alan Shatter, a former justice minister in a Fine Gael-led government and one of Ireland’s few Jewish political figures, denounced Sinn Féin as a party naturally in alliance with Hamas.
In a direct remark to Gerry Adams on social media, Shatter claimed that Sinn Féin didn’t seem to “notice” that Hamas is “committed to Israel’s extermination.” Adams, who retired from front-line politics in 2018, did not respond.
Anthony Adragna contributed reporting from Capitol Hill.