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letters from america

Government told that Occupied Territories Bill could affect immigration status of Irish in US

Fine Gael voted against the Bill, which passed second stage in the Dáil this year.

AMERICAN LOBBY GROUPS and representatives from two US states were among those who urged the government to vote down the Occupied Territories Bill, records show.

Documents released to under the Freedom of Information Act reveal how international groups sought to influence the passage of the Bill through both Houses of the Oireachtas.

In one instance, a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives warned that the Bill’s enaction into law could affect the immigration status of Irish people living in the US.

Meanwhile, another letter from Indiana’s Secretary of Commerce told the government that jobs there could be put at risk if the proposed legislation was signed into law.

The Bill, which was brought to the Oireachtas by independent senator Frances Black, seeks to prevent Ireland from trading in goods and services imported from Israeli-occupied territories.

Although it does not mention Israel or Palestine specifically, it aims to prohibit “the import and sales of goods, services and natural resources originating in illegal settlements in occupied territories”.

It passed in the Seanad in December despite government opposition, before passing second stage in the Dáil in January, when Fianna Fáil and some members of the Independent Alliance abstained from the vote.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney told in December that the government would vote against the Bill after receiving from the Attorney General that the legislation was “not legally sound”.

However, other legal sources, including former Attorney General Michael McDowell, say the Bill does not contravene European trade law.

In March, the Irish Times reported that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had written to members of the US House of Congress ahead of his annual St Patrick’s Day visit to outline the Government’s opposition to the Bill.

That followed a letter to Varadkar from ten members of Congress expressing opposition to the proposed legislation.

Other records released to under FOI also show how Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone contacted Tánaiste Simon Coveney in relation to the Bill last year, and that two Fianna Fáil TDs wrote to Coveney in 2018 to ask him how Ireland could show solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Irish immigrants

On 23 January, the same day the Bill passed second stage in the Dáil, Indiana’s Secretary of Commerce James A. Schellinger wrote to Coveney and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to ask for the legislation to be reconsidered.

In a letter sent “on behalf of the State of Indiana”, Schellinger said he felt compelled to contact the two TDs because he felt that the Bill would “unfairly target certain countries or groups of people”.

He wrote that Indiana had a “strong relationship with the State of Israel”, which had collaborated with and contributed to the midwestern US state.

Schellinger raised concerns about the impact that the passage of the Bill could have on companies that operated in Indiana.

“While Indiana is committed to fostering cultural and economic relationships with Ireland, I must reiterate the importance of our foreign-owned businesses,” he said.

“Any barrier to these businesses’ ability to operate or grow on a global scale could have a negative impact on our economy and could affect Indiana jobs.”

Indiana Department of Foreign Affairs An extract from James Schellinger's letter to Simon Coveney and Micheál Martin Department of Foreign Affairs

The following day, Steven S. Howett of the Massachusetts House of Representatives also wrote to Coveney and Martin to express opposition towards the Bill.

Howett highlighted the links between the state’s strong economic relations with both Ireland and Israel, and the personal and business relationships between Irish and Jewish communities in the region.

But he warned that the Bill’s passage could potentially impact Irish citizens living in the state of Massachusetts, which has a high concentration of Irish-Americans:

If signed into law, this bill threatens to jail citizens of Irish origin and sanction Irish based companies in Massachusetts who engage in commercial activity with the State of Israel.
In doing so, Irish citizens would be forced to make an impossible choice, whether to return to Ireland to face prosecution or stay [and] violate the terms of their immigration status in the United States.

Criminal penalties

However, political representatives weren’t the only ones to contact the Tánaiste with concerns about how the proposed law would present difficulties for those based in the US.

In October 2018, a New York-based lobbying group called The Lawfare Project, which seeks to protect the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel communities, sent Coveney a 24-page memorandum outlining how the Occupied Territories Bill contravenes US state laws.

In an accompanying letter, the group’s director of research warned the Tánaiste that the Bill had “troubling” implications, and claimed that US businesses based in Ireland would have to choose between violating Irish law or US laws if it passed through the Dáil.

“With the enactment and vigorous enforcement of these laws, the United States has demonstrated its staunch commitment to harshly penalizing [sic] and eliminating commercial discrimination against allied nations and business concerns,” the letter read.

It said that violation of the laws discussed in the memorandum carried “severe civil and criminal penalties”, and that the group could advise the Tánaiste of the “perils” of the Bill if he required more information.

Screenshot 2019-05-17 at 3.45.12 PM Department of Foreign Affairs An extract of the letter from The Lawfare Project Department of Foreign Affairs

Correspondence from another US lobby group, The Jewish Voice, was also forwarded to Coveney’s office from Israel’s Ambassador to Ireland on 14 January of this year.

The letter, written by Isaac Herzog – whose father Chaim served as the sixth president of Israel – expressed “deep concern” about the implications of the Bill in Ireland and Israel if it were to pass.

It read:

This proposed legislation, which singles out Israel for penalisation of trade, is not only unfair and unjust, but it also sets a dangerous precedent which is detrimental to the relations between our countries and to the chances of resolving the Israel Palestinian conflict by a negotiated compromise.
I have always advocated for peace and reconciliation and I know you share my views on this terribly complex issue that is the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Herzog said that if the Bill became law, he believed the boycott would extend to all walks of Irish society, as Irish people did not understand “the intricate minutiae of the territorial conflict”.

He also added that “most would deduce that it’s open season on Israel”, and urged the Government to try to prevent the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas, saying that peace would be better served if it was defeated.

‘Defenceless people’

Correspondence released by the Department of Foreign Affairs also reveals how the Tánaiste was contacted by a member of Cabinet, two Fianna Fáil TDs, and local authorities who expressed views sympathetic with the Palestinian people.

On 20 August last year, months before the Bill passed in the Seanad, a spokesperson for Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone contacted Coveney to make a representation on behalf of one of her constituents.

In an extract from a letter forwarded to the Tánaiste by Zappone, an individual urged the government to stop Ireland’s complicity in “criminal activity” against Palestinian farmers.

It read:

The right course of action is to ban all imports from the occupied territories, otherwise we are doing business with people who have no compunction about shooting at innocent children and using their military might against defenceless people to steal their land.

Concluding, Zappone’s spokesperson said she would welcome the Coveney’s views on the matter, although it is not known if the Tánaiste subsequently spoke with the independent Minister about the letter.

Two Fianna Fáil TDs also sought Coveney’s position on trade with occupied territories in Israel last year.

In January, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman Darragh O’Brien told Coveney that while Fianna Fáil would not support the Bill, the party was empathetic with its “thrust”.

“We are deeply frustrated with the lack of progress and the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, which are a flagrant violation of international law and an obstacle to achieving real and lasting peace in the region,” he wrote.

He asked the Tánaiste to commit to raising trade with “illegal settlements” with the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council and to seek solutions to the situation on a pan-European basis.

Screenshot 2019-05-17 at 3.47.10 PM Department of Foreign Affairs Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O'Brien's letter to the Tánaiste last year Department of Foreign Affairs

Months later, Limerick TD Niall Collins also contacted Coveney after conflict flared up in Gaza, and asked him to examine how Ireland could show solidarity with the Palestinian people.

“I and my Party are deeply concerned the the recent developments in the Middle East conflict, and in particular the disproportionate use of force used against protestors which resulted in dozens of casualties in Gaza,” he said.

I would appreciate if you could provide me with an update on your efforts to advance the two-state solution since the [Occupied Territories] Bill was debated in January of this year.

International law

Meanwhile, Coveney’s office also received letters from two local authorities expressing their support for the Bill last year.

On 3 July, Galway County Council, which called for RTÉ to boycott the Eurovision (which is being held in Israel) this week, told the Department that it wanted Ireland to become free from goods and services produced in Israeli settlements, and supported the Bill.

And on 15 October, a letter to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan from Wexford County Council, which explained why the local authority had passed a motion calling for the Bill to pass in the Seanad, was forwarded to the Tánaiste.

“Such settlements are illegal under both international humanitarian law and Irish domestic law, and result in human rights violations on the ground…” it read.

Israeli occupation and expansion of settlements in the Palestinian ‘West Bank’… have been repeatedly condemned as illegal by the UN, EU, the International Court of Justice, and the Irish government.

The letter asked the Minister to note the views of councillors, and said the council looked forward to his response.

The above pieces of correspondence were among 79 letters and emails sent to Coveney regarding the Occupied Territories Bill between January 2018 and 25 January, 2019.

All were released to under the Freedom of Information Act.

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