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The inside story behind the months of secret talks that led to Ireland recognising Palestine

We go behind the scenes to see the diplomatic efforts of Irish officials that brought Ireland to the point of recognising a Palestinian State.

FROM A CHANGE in the sign outside the Palestinian embassy in Dublin to a more formal setting for Irish diplomats in Ramallah, the recognition of Palestine will have a number of practical implications. 

But it is the symbolic and political that will be the most important aspect of the move by the Irish, Norwegian and Spanish governments. 

The decision follows months of delicate high-level negotiations which ramped up at the start of this year, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and his officials repeatedly travelling to the Middle East to see what the implications of the decision could potentially be. 

Critically, diplomatic sources have said, Ireland’s move recognises the State but not a specific government. Those sources are keen to stress that this is not about legitimising  Hamas, which Ireland and the broader EU have declared a terrorist organisation.

Sources have said that the main thinking behind the decision by Irish diplomats and policy leaders is to “find a political pathway” to peace.  

The practical effect of the recognition will see a Palestinian flag flown at Leinster House for one day next week, the Irish consulate in Ramallah will become an embassy and its diplomat Feilim McLaughlin will become an ambassador. 

In Ireland Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid, who is the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Dublin will also be formally declared an ambassador. She told The Journal that the Palestinian mission on Leeson Street Upper will change its brass plate to say embassy instead in Irish, English and Arabic. 

While those practical measures are taking place the real impact will be felt in meetings.  Diplomatic sources said that in recognising the Palestinian State it can be used as a negotiating point, giving strength to Ireland’s policy position for a two-state solution.

One senior source explained in order to pursue a peace agreement in which Palestine and Israel will coexist, both entities must be defined as States. 

The strategy

Ireland’s run into yesterday morning’s dramatic announcement began late last year as Israel responded to the barbarous 7 October attacks. High level meetings took place in Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Iveagh House in Dublin city centre. 

By December, as Israel pounded Gaza and the humanitarian crisis took hold, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin began chatting to like-minded foreign ministers at Foreign Affairs Council meetings in Europe. 

Martin hosted a dinner in January “for seven or eight like-minded EU partners” to discuss it – partly about the possibility of recognising Palestine as a state but also more broadly to try and find a way to bring an end to the Gaza crisis.

Sources said that those discussions narrowed down the potential options available to the governments to just one: recognition. 

What followed then was months of senior officials and the Tánaiste getting on flights to the Middle East to meet with Arab leaders and hear what they believed was the way forward, and advocate for the Irish position.

These trips for the Tánaiste and senior diplomats included multiple visits to key brokers Egypt and Jordan, as well as meetings with Qatari, Saudi and Emirates officials. There was also a meeting with the Saudis and Norwegians together.

As the plans became firmer, Taoiseach Simon Harris became involved with the final touches to the plan. 

Sources have said that the complexity of the recognition cannot be overstated. There was a significant consideration that anything Ireland would do would have to fit in with the Arab peace initiative so as not to undermine any other work being done by Palestine’s near-neighbours. 

A source stressed that the last piece of the diplomatic puzzle was to get the timing right. 

036dba90-9c6f-47a3-8971-5d814a3903fc Tánaiste Micheál Martin with Irish Ambassador to Jordan Marianne Bolger meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan in recent weeks.

Palestinian reaction

Palestinian Ambassador Dr Jilan Wahba Abdalmajid said that she expects slight changes in the status of her office in Dublin. 

“In the coming few days we will do something that is very simple – we will change the sign outside our mission to say Embassy of the State of Palestine.

“It will be written in the Irish language, English and of course, in Arabic. This is a sign to say thank you, Ireland for giving us this, the status,” she explained.

The Ambassador said she welcomed the decision taken by by Ireland, Spain and Norway and said it is a “significant step”. She said that she recognised the language spoken by Taoiseach Simon Harris as similar to that spoken in 1919 as Ireland sought independence. 

“It’s a demonstration and unwavering commitment to the two state solution.

“This is something that the people of Ireland, the Government of Ireland, is saying to the whole world that we recognise the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, to a sovereign state, and to an independent free state of Palestine on the 1967 borders. This gives us strength and hope,” she said. 

the-palestinian-ambassador-to-ireland-dr-jilan-abdalmajid-at-the-palestinian-embassy-in-dublin-the-case-of-an-irish-israeli-girl-who-is-feared-kidnapped-in-gaza-has-been-raised-with-the-palestinian The Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Jilan Abdalmajid, at the Palestinian Embassy in Dublin. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

‘We are not alone’

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit. 

McDonagh believes Ireland joining with Norway is a significant move given that country’s long history of peace building efforts in the Middle East.

“There’s no country that has been more involved in trying to bring peace in the Middle East than Norway. The Oslo Accords are famous as an earlier attempt to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“We make our own decisions and the Norwegians joining along with us just shows that on balance, if we want to move forward, get peace in the Middle East, and move towards a two-state solution, which is the only conceivable solution, then recognising Palestine is the right thing to do,” he said.

dfa960da-dbcc-4252-9138-ecc4d99b41cb Tanaiste Micheal Martin accompanied by officials including Cairo based Irish ambassador Nuala O'Brien meeting the Foreign Minister of Egypt Sameh Shoukry.

McDonagh believes that the key to the Irish move is the understanding that Palestine has an equal right to be declared a state as Israel does. 

McDonagh said it is key that “we are not alone” and that Ireland made the move with Spain and Norway. Sources have told The Journal that Slovenia will likely follow after a vote in parliament. 

The former ambassador said that he believes Israel is “not behaving rationally at the moment”.

“If you look at the wider international picture, the overwhelming majority of countries in the world will support what we do.

“The Israeli Foreign Minister has threatened severe consequences for us but I really don’t know what they can do. They did withdraw their ambassador, but that’s more negative for them – they want to have diplomatic relations – they want to get their point of view across.”

Ireland’s Ambassador in Israel Sonya McGuinness has been summoned by the Israeli State for a démarche – essentially a robust telling off by the Tel Aviv government. 

McDonagh said that Israel needs to be realistic about what is possible diplomatically. 

“We can’t control what they do with their ambassador any more than they can control what we do. I think they live in a fantasy world in which they think that the world’s public opinion is supporting them – it is not,” the former diplomat said. 

Long history

The recognition of Palestine as a State by Ireland is part of a lengthy process but the Irish and their Norwegian and Spanish colleagues are not the only ones who have been taking action. 

A vote in the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago saw a vote overwhelmingly in support of a Palestinian bid for full membership of the organisation.

The resolution, which stated that the Palestinians should be admitted to the UN and grants them some additional rights as observers, received 143 votes for, nine against and 25 abstentions.

But recognition by more than 140 individual countries on a unilateral basis goes back much further. 

Sweden was the first country in western Europe to recognise Palestine in 2014 but other states such Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Hungary followed suit. 

That diplomatic activity in 2014 was not the first – in 1988 when Yasser Arafat declared a Palestinian State, Algeria was the first country to recognise it. 

Within weeks, dozens of other countries, including much of the Arab world, India, Turkey, most of Africa and several central and eastern European countries had followed suit.

There was another flurry of activity in the 2010s when South American states gave their recognition. 

Legal texts state that such recognition is a “unilateral statement of intent” – in other words the Government decide alone to give a greater status to a State.   

A succinct post on the Swiss Government’s Foreign Affairs website sums up the measure best.

“As a general rule, newly-created states are recognised as such by other states provided their creation is considered legitimate and irreversible,” it states. 

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