Unbeknownst to most until last week’s parliamentary vote on Palestine, the Westminster MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are a staunchly pro-Israel lot.
While parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion to recognise Palestine alongside Israel, 12 voted against the motion, and of this dozen, five were from the late Ian Paisley’s DUP.
To London’s Jews, Northern Ireland can seem off the political radar, but to those with an interest, the voting preferences of MPs Nigel Dodds, William McCrea, Ian Paisley (the late founder’s son), Jim Shannon and David Simpson should have come as no surprise.
Indeed, the founding of the DUP Friends of Israel group at Stormont in June was one of the veteran unionist’s last political acts before his death in September. In terms of his long-standing support for the Jewish state, however, it was merely the latest.
Earlier this summer, the DUP pressed police authorities on the legality of anti-Israel protests, while two years earlier, it launched fierce criticism at the Co-operative Group for banning Israeli products from the West Bank.
Why the support? Politically, culturally and geographically, Northern Ireland is some distance from Israel, so why such stringent views from Ulster’s Protestant community?
In part, it is because there is equally strong support for the Palestinians from the unionists’ arch-enemy. Irish Republicans have long associated themselves with the Palestinian cause, and there has been co-operation and trading between the PLO and the IRA dating back to the 1970s, including training and arms procurement.
That association is very much alive today, with Palestinian flags flown in Republican areas of Northern Ireland and murals proclaiming common cause with Palestine. This summer, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams even called for the Israeli ambassador to be expelled from Ireland, while the Palestinian representative to Ireland spoke at a Republican hunger strike commemoration.
But that’s not the whole story. Steven Jaffe, co-chair of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, thinks it stems in part from faith. “Many DUP MPs come from a Bible-believing Protestant background,” he says. “They have a very sincere and positive attitude to the Biblical roots of the Jewish people’s connection to the land.”
As well as sharing a book, unionists in Northern Ireland say they also share common experiences with Israel, given that both have waged a war against terrorism. So in political terms, they can relate to Israel’s position, explains Jaffe. “They identify with Israel fighting for its survival, and they feel the international media is unfairly hostile to Israel just as they believe it was hostile to their own cause,” he says.
David McIlveen, the North Antrim Assembly Member who launched the DUP Friends of Israel group, says this translates into a willingness to defend the Jewish state when it is attacked. “Whenever we feel there is an unfair portrayal of Israel being presented in social or mainstream media, we do our part to try and argue against it,” he says.
Dr. William McCrea, a Free Presbyterian minister and one of the five MPs to vote against the motion, agrees with the others. “There’s a friendship there,” he says. “We know what it’s like to be under attack for years on end. We fought terrorism here, from the republicans, so we know what it’s like to face these things.”
Lessons from the past were very much the theme of Paisley Junior’s address to the Commons – his first since his father passed away.
“The conclusion of the negotiations [in Northern Ireland] was not set in stone in advance of the negotiations or during,” the MP for North Antrim said. “The participants in the process must be allowed to find their own conclusions… to find their own way; they cannot be told, lectured or dictated to on what is best.”
Paisley urged parliament “not to assume that it has the right to tell people how to sort out their peace processes,” before adding that a lesson from Northern Ireland was “not to pour fuel on burning flames”.
He added: “To recognise the state of Palestine when significant and strong elements in the Palestinian negotiating process do not even recognise Israel and would not allow that state to exist, would be to make an already difficult situation worse.”
And he should know.