By Anam Alam, The New Arab, 26 December 2023
In late 1987, an 18-year-old Richard Boyd Barrett arrived from Ireland in the southern part of historic Palestine to work as a labourer.
Shortly after arriving, a series of protests spread from Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp to the occupied West Bank and other Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and Israel – known as the first Intifada.
Richard found himself working alongside Palestinians who came as day labourers from refugee camps in Al-Khalil/Hebron, many of whom were also participating in the uprising.
He visited their refugee camp and learned the history of the Palestinian people and the oppression they have suffered since 1948.
After being “horrified” at the brutality he witnessed perpetrated against young Palestinian people and identifying with the Palestinian cause and their plight, Richard felt he had to get involved in advocating for Palestine.
When he returned to Ireland, Richard began advocating for the Palestinian cause and becoming involved with the Anti-War Movement and socialist politics.
Today, Richard is a member of the Irish Parliament for People Before Profit and is still fighting for Palestinian rights.
“I always say I went to Israel and came back from Palestine,” Richard tells The New Arab. Ireland is one of the few countries in the West to support Palestine and was the first EU state to endorse Palestinian statehood in 1980. The country also banned and criminalised trading goods and services from lands occupied by Israel in 2018.
“I think there’s a very close parallel between the Palestinian struggle and the Irish struggle,” Richard explains while discussing Ireland’s support for Palestine.
The politician details how Ireland was the first British colony, and there was constant resistance by the people of Ireland against British colonialism.
Similar to the apartheid system that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians, Richard says the forerunner for that was a system called the Penal Laws, a system of apartheid that British colonialism imposed in Ireland, religiously segregating the population and discriminating against the majority Catholic population. A system that contributed to one of the first modern famines, the Irish famine, which led to almost 50 percent of the Irish population being either wiped out or forced out of the country.
“Even when the Irish revolution happened between 1916 and 1921, there was a very, very brutal suppression of that by British forces,” Richard explains.
“A lot of the commanders, the political leaders, and even some of the military personnel, that were used to try and crush the Irish revolution, were also deeply implicated in promoting Zionism and later going to Palestine and helping establish what was to become the Israeli state.
“There was direct overlap in terms of policy and personnel in the subjugation of Ireland and the subjugation of Palestine,” he adds. “These are very close analogies and so there’s always been a recognition and awareness in Ireland of those parallels.”
Richard has been very vocal about Western leaders’ reluctance and hypocrisy to support Palestine.
Western nations like the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and France have come out in support of Israel and have been backing its rights to defend itself.
Most recently, in a vote to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the United States, along with Israel and eight other countries, voted against it, while the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Germany and 20 other countries abstained.
“I think the big Western imperial/colonial powers, what their agenda is, is to dominate the world,” says Richard. “They’re involved in a constant competition between the big imperial blocks to try and develop spheres of influence and to control markets, to control resources around the world to the benefit of those big powers.”
Richard explains Israel has been a key element of this, particularly after the discovery of oil at the beginning of the 20th century. He thinks the big imperial powers, most notably Britain at the time, understood that control of what was to become the most important resource in the history of capitalism, oil, would require them to have ways of exercising their influence in the Middle East.
The activist thinks it was in that context that they supported the Zionist project – to have a colonial outpost in a strategically important area.
“It’s also why they have sought to collaborate with very brutal and dictatorial regimes elsewhere in the Middle East because I think the thing that those colonial powers fear most is democracy and self-determination in the Middle East because it would challenge their influence,” says Richard.
“I think it’s sort of strategic, colonial self-interest, and the Palestinians have become victims of that. But I think, actually, all of the people of the region are victims in one way or another of that colonial project.”
When asked what he thinks the West should do, Richard believes the nations should have principles instead of operating purely on their own perceived self-interest and promoting the interests of big businesses and corporations.
“We’re supposed to believe in kind of universal principles of human rights, of equality, of freedom, of self-determination, of democracy, but in fact, they’re [the West] very selective about these things,” Richard says.
“I think often they just use them as a sort of rhetorical cover for pursuing much more selfish objectives.
“What I’d like to see is a sort of ethical foreign policy that is based on universal principles and values applying equally to everybody regardless of their colour, their religion, their race, or cultural background. That’s what’s necessary,” he adds.
“It’s what they preach, but they don’t practise.”
Richard believes it is in everybody’s interest to support the Palestinians, not just because of the suffering and oppression that they have endured for decades since 1948.
The politician adds that one of the slogans that rose from the horrors of the second world war and the Holocaust was the idea of “Never Again”, which Richard believes came from a recognition that the same horrors can be done to any group of people as it was done to the Jewish people and even travellers and the LGBTQIA+ by the Nazi regime.
“Of course, we see instances of genocidal oppression and brutal racism and discrimination in many parts of the world,” Richard says. “I think it’s in all of our interests to stand with the Palestinians and oppose all forms of racism and oppression.
“If we don’t stand with the oppressed, then we might find ourselves one day the victims of the same sort of forces of oppression.”
Anam Alam is a freelance writer who frequently writes on human rights and social issues, including women’s rights and sex education