On Friday there was one of the most significant events yet in Palestinian solidarity work in Ireland. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions held a conference on Palestine/Israel and on how to build solidarity links. It was reported and attacked in the media and, in a nutshell, it was a very successful conference – one that will lay the basis of future union campaigning on Palestine. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the implementation of the 2009 ICTU resolution which called for a comprehensive boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel
The main success lay in it being held the way it was – with senior leaders from all major Irish unions present, and the fact it took place in Dublin Castle, a venue which was donated by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs for the event. All of this signalled the seriousness with which this boycott campaign is held by ICTU and associated unions and their determination to place it centre stage. This display of unity was no mean feat. After 20 years of partnership arrangements with the government, Irish unions are in turmoil. The recent economic collapse has led to the government and private sector implementing brutal wage cuts, recruitment freezes and job losses. While there is considerable disagreements among union leaders on how to respond to this attack on working people, there were no serious disagreements in Dublin Castle on Friday – Palestine is clearly an issue on which Irish trade unionists can unite.
The morning session was opened by Jack O’Connor, president of ICTU, followed by Micheál Martin, our minister of Foreign Affairs. While Martin expressed (very politely) his disagreement with boycott, he did say that he also opposed upgrading Israel’s relationship with the EU. This of course raises Ireland’s position with regard to Israel acceding to the OECD, with many speakers saying that the trade unions should use their position to persuade our government to veto Israeli membership of the OECD.
The highlight of the morning session was Patricia McKeown, previous president of ICTU. In her speech she outline the reasons for boycotting Israel, talked of the ICTU trip to Palestine and sharply criticised the Histadrut – a speech which received a standing ovation. We also had Michael Letwin of US Labor for Palestine (and IJAN) effectively rebutting the US Jewish Labour Committee who gave an anti-boycott position.
The highlight of the afternoon was undoubtedly the speech by the Histadrut representative– Avital Shapira-Shabirow. While the IPSC fully supports the BNC and PGFTU position of boycotting the Histadrut, I have to admit that we were delighted with Avital and her speech. She perfectly encapsulated the arrogance and contempt with which Israelis hold those that they disagree with. Within the first two minutes she raised the accusation of anti-Semitism and after that, in a speech that parroted the Israeli embassy’s statement on the conference, it was all downhill for her, uphill for us.
In fact she accused ICTU of being linked in with that notoriously radical group – the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign – an attack that immediately made us the most popular people in the room. She then advised everybody to look at our website – (www.ipsc.ie by the way). I have to admit I felt a bit nervous here, wondering what we’d be accused of. Well she accused us of… (drumroll)… supporting the right of return for Palestinians. Seriously, this was her accusation – supporting the right of return. She then went on to claim that supporting this basic human right for Palestinians meant supporting Hamas. This smear might wash in the US but was greeted with incredulity and frank derision by the conference. It got better – to prove how justified the Israelis were in massacring Gazans in 2009, she showed a video of a British general who praised Israel’s conduct – a general who as part of his credentials proudly boasted of having served in Northern Ireland. This to a room, about a third of whom came from the North. You couldn’t make it up.
The Histadrut was followed by Omar Barghouti of PACBI and Raed Sadeq of the Democracy and Worker’s Right Center in Palestine, both of whom spoke effectively about boycott, and shredded the Histadrut argument that they are ‘the best friend of the Palestinian people’. While it was a shame that all the international trade union representatives from PGFTU, COSATU, Scottish TUC and TUC couldn’t come as a result of the volcano (and an aside – why is there no conspiracy theorising about the Icelandic volcano yet – don’t these people care any more?), the Palestinian speakers who made it were very happy with the conference. When I was speaking at one stage to Raed Sadeq there were literally tears of joy in his eyes because of the level of solidarity for Palestine expressed in the conference. The task of course is to move beyond expressing solidarity to practicing it, and from what I saw yesterday, there is a serious intention in ICTU to do it.
The real value of the conference lay in the networking and liaising outside the conference room. The IPSC line is that unions should first and foremost inform and divest - inform their members of the boycott line, and divest from Israeli companies, CRH and Veolia. The trade unionists received this message very positively, and it is our intention to follow up on this. Everyone who made this conference happen – especially Trade Union Friends of Palestine who helped drive the process – deserves the highest praise. It's rare that we can be so unequivocally positive about something when talking about Palestine, but this conference has helped move Palestine solidarity to a new level in the unions.