LONDONDERRY and BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The Bogside neighborhood is where Northern Ireland’s brutal sectarian war began in the late 1960s. Visitors photographing the murals that glorify hooded paramilitaries, though, might be excused for thinking another conflict is preoccupying the Catholic residents of this shabby gray estate.
Here, the Irish tricolor jostles for space with that of another one: the Palestinian flag. Placards decry the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. “Solidarity with Palestine!” screams a freshly painted mural outside a local pub. Maps nestled in the corners of pro-Palestinian murals inform the public that in Palestine, like in Ireland, there can be only one state.
Between 1969 and 1998, Northern Irish society was torn apart as rival paramilitaries — representing the Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British Unionists — fought over wanting the territory to be united with the Republic of Ireland or remain as part of the United Kingdom, as it had been since the island was partitioned in 1921.
The Northern Ireland conflict (aka The Troubles) killed over 3,500 people, including some 1,800 civilians, and the country remains bitterly divided along sectarian lines. Londonderry, the country’s second largest city, is a place so divided it has two names: Catholics drop the “London” prefix that is the official British name for the city.
Symbolic displays of identity aggressively broadcast the divides between nationalist and unionist streets here. Positions adopted by hard-liners in one community are automatically opposed in a knee-jerk way by the other.
The Museum of Free Derry, which commemorates the period when paramilitaries carved out a semi-autonomous “statelet” in the Bogside, is dominated from the outside by a huge Palestinian flag. Museum manager Adrian Kerr explains that “people from a nationalist background in Ireland see a similarity with other struggles against oppression.”
Traveling around nationalist estates in Londonderry, Belfast and elsewhere, visitors can see a panoply of flags hanging from lampposts, windows or painted on walls: Basque, Catalan, Cuban, Aboriginal Australian. But the most common non-Irish flags and symbols, by far, are Palestinian ones.
Kerr says his museum decided to drape itself in Palestinian flags during last year’s Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip, when thousands of Palestinians staged weekly protests along the border. At its peak, in May 2018, when the Americans marked the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, over 60 Palestinians were killed in one day. “We saw the violence there,” says Kerr, and “it led to an emotional reaction.”
He believes the feelings of solidarity shared between Northern Ireland and the Palestinians runs deeper than other relations. “Just look at the history,” says Kerr. “Israel-Palestine was a British partition; Ireland was a British partition.”
Londonderry is 75 percent Catholic (according to the 2011 U.K. census), but there is one Protestant enclave on the west bank of the city’s River Foyle: the Fountain estate. Hidden behind reinforced steel barriers, a single street winds through this tightly packed housing that was once home to over 10,000 Protestants but now houses about 250. At its entrance, the mantra of Unionist Londonderry is there for all to see: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege: No Surrender.”
Further down the street, a mural reminds passersby that there is a Protestant community around the world and that they are not alone. For generations, religious leaders told Ulster’s loyalists that this was their “promised land” and they its chosen people.
A bond is formed
Pro-Palestinian solidarity among Irish Republicans dates back to the late ’70s when the main paramilitary groups — the Irish Republican Army and the communist Irish National Liberation Army — established ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization. They began to cultivate links and comparisons with other anti-imperialist struggles internationally, as younger recruits pushed Republicanism further left and began seeking weapons, training and advice on how to wage a long-term war of attrition with British security forces.