Flags and murals as Northern Ireland picks sides in Gaza crisis

Published November 1, 2023
Belfast: People walk past a pro-Palestinian mural on the Republican  Falls Road, on Tuesday. The painting
on the wall depicts the history of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.—AFP
Belfast: People walk past a pro-Palestinian mural on the Republican Falls Road, on Tuesday. The painting on the wall depicts the history of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.—AFP
People pass a pro-Palestinian mural on the Republican Falls Road in Belfast on October 23, 2023. — AFP
People pass a pro-Palestinian mural on the Republican Falls Road in Belfast on October 23, 2023. — AFP

BELFAST: Northern Ireland may be thousands of miles from the Middle East but signs of the current heightened unrest can be seen on the streets of the British province.

Palestinian and Israeli flags flutter in pro-Irish and pro-UK neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland, tapping into its own history of conflict and division that still affects everyday life despite a 1998 peace deal that largely ended violence.

The growing number of flags displayed are supplemented by murals and graffiti showing support for either the Palestinians or Israel, depending on which side of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide they are located.

On the Falls Road, a main artery in the mostly pro-Irish western districts of Belfast, Pat Sheehan, a lawmaker with Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the paramilitary IRA, explained that local people feel “empathy” for Palestinians.

“If there’s any nation that can understand the difficulties that the Palestinians are living under now it’s the Irish,” Sheehan said in front of a freshly painted pro-Palestinian mural.

“Ireland has suffered colonialism and occupation for 800 years, there have been many armed uprisings against British rule, and we see Palestinians suffering under similar colonial occupation.”

At a ceremony two weeks ago Sheehan unveiled the mural, which is emblazoned with “Free Palestine” and portrays a clenched fist painted in both Palestinian and Irish colours.

Later the same day, the grey-haired 65-year-old — who survived 55 days on a prison hunger strike in 1981 — addressed a pro-Palestinian rally in central Belfast that drew thousands of sympathisers.

Palestinian flags have long been flown in pro-republican areas, but their numbers have risen dramatically in recent weeks.

Ronit Berger Hobson, an Israeli-born professor in conflict studies at Queen’s University Belfast, said she began researching Northern Ireland and its peace process to learn how it could potentially be applied to the Israel-Palestinian issue.

“Then I came here and saw all these flags: Palestinian on one street, Israeli ones on the next!” she said at her home near Belfast.

Hobson said the North­ern Irish displays of solidarity appear to stem from both sides’ largely misplaced perception of parallels with the issue between Israelis and the Palestinians.

“But this picking of sides, this effort to dress the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the same colours as the one here, somehow doesn’t add up,” she said.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2023

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