Trade Union Friends of Palestine, Ireland Trade Union Friends of Palestine, Ireland. Photo: Irish Congress of Trade Unions

Jim Clarke spoke to Eamon McMahon, the Northern Secretary of Trade Union Friends of Palestine, Ireland, about how trade unionists are showing solidarity with Palestine

How long has Trade Union Friends of Palestine been in existence?

Quite a long time now. We first started planning in 2005 and then met with the Northern Irish Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (NIC-ICTU) and put to them that on the back of ICTU’s 2005 policy ‘to campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people’ we needed to develop some structures to put that policy into practice.

We suggested that we set up Trade Union Friends of Palestine. NIC-ICTU helped facilitate that, and the first meeting was held in October 2006. NIC-ICTU nominated an officer to take minutes at that meeting and I took over as secretary of the organisation shortly after that.

What were the key elements that the TUFP campaigned around?

There was quite a fractured situation with the Palestinian leadership which makes the political landscape a little different from South Africa, so we looked to Palestinian civil cociety, including the trade unions, for direction. In fact we see ourselves as getting our mandate from organised Palestinian civil society.

And in 2005 there was a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of the Israeli state until there was compliance with international law on the questions of the Palestinian refugees, Palestinians within Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. That became our primary focus, to promote BDS within the Trade Union movement, and of course to educate the membership in the historical and political context, as well as the extent of ongoing oppression of Palestinians.

What happened after that?

With the support of Derry and Belfast trades councils, a very strong motion was adopted at the next ICTU conference in 2007 calling on the trade union movement to actively boycott and divest from Israel. It also made very strong statements regarding Western appeasement of Israel and Israeli impunity. We were very clear, even then, that this was an apartheid state. This was reinforced in the report of the ICTU delegation of senior officials to Palestine, including Gaza, in late 2007. Gaza by that time was under siege.

I think ICTU was the first major trade union federation in the West to pass such a strong BDS motion, and the second in the world, after COSATU, to do so. ICTU is a united trade union federation right across the island of Ireland. That is very important in that it represents the whole of the movement – and the reason it is an all island body is because it was set up before partition. The motion by the way also committed ICTU to establishing TUFP in the south.

Given that the sectarian question in Northern Ireland divides support for the Palestinian people, has TUFP been able to reach workers from a Unionist or Loyalist background?

This is something we are very aware of in that the issue is heavily sectarianised, so by and large support for Israel resides in the Unionist community and support for the Palestinians is very much seen as something that is associated with the Nationalist community. Because of this it can make people very wary of supporting the Palestinians even on issues of human rights.

But we have always had support from Unions where the membership comes from all communities. Even before we approached ICTU, Nipsa (Northern Irish Public Service Alliance) supported the establishment of TUFP and Nipsa is a big union with a wide ranging membership.

Unison, which also has an extensive membership particularly in working class communities, has made a strong commitment to TUFP and we hold meetings in the Unison premises.

TUFP organises delegations to go to Palestine and Nipsa and Unison along with a number of other unions – especially the all-island teaching union Into – have supported those delegations and have had members go to Palestine as part of those delegations.

That support seems vital in winning support for the Palestinians?

Yes it is and beyond the support locally, those unions have supported the establishment of the European Trade Union Network for Justice in Palestine (ETUN) and that to us is very important.

To have a network right across Europe, which never happened in the anti-Vietnam War movement for example or even in the anti-Apartheid movement, is a great achievement. There are 36 unions involved in the network and we all work together to advance Palestinian solidarity work in the European trade union movement. The key aims of the network are to end European complicity – particularly the EU-Israel Association Agreement – to end corporate complicity, and to end the arms trade with Israel.

Just to go back on the question of sectarianism. We did bring over a young Israeli Jewish woman, Shahaf Weisbein, a conscientious objector, with a view to inform the membership – especially those who would be seen as pro-Israeli – about the reality of Israeli society.  

We held meetings in Ballymena, which would be perceived as a predominantly a Unionist/Loyalist area. We also had a meeting in East Belfast, again a predominantly Unionist area, and those meetings were sponsored by Unite and Nipsa. The Fire Brigades Union also sponsored a meeting in Lisburn which again is a Unionist/Loyalist area just outside of Belfast.

Do you think those activities have shifted opinions amongst Unionist/Loyalist workers?

Perhaps we have shifted some people’s opinions although there is a pretty substantial amount of work to be done. What we are trying to raise awareness of though is the committed BDS action and solidarity amongst sections of the Protestant Churches – particularly in the US. Many of these church groupings have extensive networks and they have a pretty impressive approach to BDS in that they don’t just have a policy but they also act to implement it – particularly in the area of divestment.

In many ways this was a response to the Kairos Palestine call of 2009 – a call for Christians around the world, and people of conscience, to support Palestinians particularly through BDS. This was replicating a similar Kairos South Africa call for solidarity during the apartheid era. It would be reasonable to say that Protestant churches have been at the forefront in responding to that call.

TUFP was very impressed by the solidarity shown by faith communities – clearly many trade union members would identify with those faith groups – so we facilitated the establishment of Kairos Ireland. We hope that this will help reach out to our Protestant brothers and sisters.

Do you think the Protestant Churches can make a difference?

Although it wouldn’t be the central activity for our organisation, when Methodist ministers or Presbyterian ministers come on board to offer support for the Palestinian people and for the BDS campaign this is clearly very significant.

It is very useful in terms of showing that the spectre of sectarianism need not define the attitude people take to the Palestinian question. It cuts against the idea that the Palestinian question is solely a question for people from a Republican or Nationalist background.

You spoke at a rally in Belfast recently to support Palestinians and you read out an ICTU motion. Why was that important?

ICTU does have a number of important policy motions and has continually ratified its support for the Palestinians in conference after conference. If we go back all the way to 2007, ICTU was very clear that Israel is an apartheid state. ICTU has demonstrated in a number of important ways support for the Palestinian people – demanding an end to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, supporting Palestinian hunger strikers, defending threatened villages, calling on the Irish Government to call Israel to account etc.

ICTU hosted Omar Barghouti the leading spokesperson for the BDS movement, as a guest speaker at the 2017 conference. It has also campaigned against his arrest and the imposition of a travel ban. It has also supported the Occupied Territories Bill, prohibiting trade with the settlements, and the recent motion condemning de facto annexation, both of which have been passed by the Irish parliament.

What was really important about the recent ICTU statement however, which I read out at the rally, was not just the condemnation of Israeli aggression and calls on the Irish government to respond with sanctions, but its focus on what the trade union movement can do –

“We encourage our affiliates to take action where they can on investments, pension funds, procurement, and boycotting illegal goods from the Occupied Territories and those produced under an apartheid system. We have agreed to step up our efforts to translate this support into effective, strategic campaigns that can significantly contribute to the struggle for freedom justice, and equality.”

The BDS policy has been around for a long time, but we have reached a level of understanding now, of justifiable anger, and after many years of TUFP meetings, conferences, publications and delegations – and of course of growing Israeli atrocity and impunity – that a stage has been reached when we hopefully will see the BDS policy put into effect. The Palestinian trade union movement has also recently put out a call for this to happen, for trade unions to act in their own right, including non-handling of Israeli goods. We in TUFP and the broader movement will certainly be working to respond to this call. We want to increase the kind of activities trade union members are able to carry out within the BDS campaign. We know how important the BDS movement is, and that is why Israel spends so much time trying to discredit and criminalise that movement.

I should let you know that TUFP has for many years been highlighting the extent of complicity by Hewlett Packard and the split-off HP brands from the original company. They all remain deeply complicit, providing the technological infrastructure for the Israeli apartheid system – including in Israel itself where it provides the population register and database underpinning the apartheid administration. A number of unions here now in Ireland are boycotting HP, so it was important to let the people at the rally know that and to call on them also to boycott HP themselves.

Any final thoughts?

I would like to say that ICTU affiliates working closely with the TUFP, held a conference recently regarding the plight of Palestinian children, and the mass incarceration and indeed the planned traumatisation of Palestinian children by the Israeli state. This needs to be highlighted much more.

‘The careful maiming of children’ is how I described it in my presentation to the conference. One of the outcomes of this conference is the official support of the main teaching unions in Ireland for the development of relationships with the Palestinian education sector, its schools and its unions.

Another important outcome has been the establishment of the Ireland Palestine Mental Health Network. The most significant outcome has been the involvement of so many affiliates in the conference, and the increased interest and motivation to act. This should lead to important outcomes in terms of the ICTU call to implement BDS.  It also helped enormously when we – TUFP and ICTU, and here the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation played a key role – launched an appeal for a Covid Response Fund, raising over 30,000 euro to be sent to Gaza and the West Bank.

Fundamentally however the strengthened awareness of the issues, and the recent evidence of Israeli planned brutality, including the massacres in Gaza, should increase the commitment of the trade union movement here to bring about effective and concrete BDS action.

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