Stormont politicians' Middle East views 'predictable'

Newry mayor Dáire Hughes wrote to traders in the area asking them to consider not stocking Israeli goods
Newry mayor Dáire Hughes wrote to traders in the area asking them to consider not stocking Israeli goods

The row in Newry over the Sinn Fein Mayor's letter proposing a boycott of Israeli goods is the latest in a sequence of incidents highlighting the tendency for many nationalists and unionists to take sides when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East.

It follows the controversy over George Galloway's appearance at Belfast's Ulster Hall and the decision to remove the blue plaque from the wall of the birthplace of former Israeli president, Chaim Herzog, in the north of the city.

Anyone puzzled by the sight of Israeli and Palestinian flags fluttering over areas of Belfast could do worse than to watch the documentary "Shalom Belfast" broadcast in 2012.

In it, Israeli journalist Ithamar Handelman Smith explored the reasons why many unionists and nationalists identify with their perceived counterparts thousands of miles away.

As the documentary points out, for every parallel, there are also contrasts and levels of irony for anyone tempted to transplant one conflict onto another.

With a few exceptions, like Lord Kilclooney's criticism of the Israeli military offensive, you don't have to ask Stormont politicians what they think about the Middle East as they generally fall into predictable categories.

But will the breast beating in Belfast make any difference to the real politik in Israel and Palestine?

The answer is, almost certainly, not very much. If negotiations do get under way then Northern Ireland will serve as an example of what might be possible in the future.

But for now, if there's any foreign field worth concentrating on for both Israeli and Palestinian lobbyists, it has to remain the United States.

Irish nationalists used their influence in America to significant effect during the Northern Ireland peace process, but the majority in the US Congress continues to take a radically different view of Israel than they did when it came to Ireland.

The veteran Irish National Caucus campaigner Father Sean McManus has tried to translate the approach he pioneered with the MacBride principles on Fair Employment in Northern Ireland into a "Holy Land Principles" campaign urging American companies to sign up to principles ensuring "American dollars do not support discrimination, human rights abuses, or violations of international law".

However, given the strength of the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, Fr McManus will find this an uphill struggle.

Indeed, his website reports that of the 546 firms contacted, none have signed up.

Back in Europe, Sinn Féin aren't limiting their support for the Palestinian cause to local council chambers.

Indeed, Sinn Féin's MEP Martina Anderson has been appointed to chair a European Parliament delegation on relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council.

But when it comes to boycotting companies who do business with Israel, there could be some real complications for Northern Ireland's often predictable politicians.

The US firm, Caterpillar, is one of the main targets of the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement because it supplies armoured bulldozers to the Israeli defence forces.

Yet Caterpillar is also a major local employer which has been wooed by both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in pursuit of millions of pounds of investment.

Pronouncing on tragic events thousands of miles away may be relatively easy for those who have already decided which side they prefer, but dealing with issues that could have economic consequences closer to home would inevitably be a more sensitive matter for Stormont politicians, no matter which party they represent.