Mainstreaming BDS – The Irish campaign
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
The boycott is a universal tactic, but the word is Irish. First used during the 19th Century struggle against British colonialism. Captain Charles Boycott was an unpopular British land agent ostracised by the local community as part of a campaign against tenant exploitation. Today in the 21st Century the Irish still understand the power of the boycott. They enthusiastically supported the anti-apartheid call for a boycott of South Africa, and the BDS campaign has always been central in our support for Palestinian resistance.
This account of Irish success in the BDS campaign is mainly focused on the last year. Not because we have short memories, but because the campaign has grown significantly in the last twelve months. Two years ago, when we in the IPSC discussed campaigning tactics, we had to face the fact that if we asked passers-by about boycotting Israel, they would not have known what we were talking about. It was just not on the political radar.
After Irish trade unions passed resolutions and held meetings supporting a boycott, after street boycott activities, after thousands upon thousands of leaflets, flyers and petitions were distributed, after some mainstream media and politicians were won over to the boycott tactic, attitudes have changed. There is a lot more work to be done, but this change in public attitude has probably been our biggest success, and we have tried to translate this shift in public opinion to more specific successes.
Building support for a boycott
Building the campaign has been a long and slow process but it has been immeasurably helped by the strong backing of the Irish trade unions. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and many affiliated unions have passed boycott motions in the last few years. In the last year we have worked with unions to implement these resolutions, because we see union support for Palestinian solidarity as vital. The labour movement in Ireland was the backbone of the anti-apartheid struggle. They have given every indication that they will play a similar role for Palestinian solidarity in this country.
Though the Irish media and politicians were initially hostile to the idea of boycotting Israel, this has started to change. In May 2010, Phoenix magazine, a popular and mainstream publication, produced a 16-page supplement on Palestine in co-operation with IPSC (http://www.ipsc.ie/phoenix/). It featured contributions from leading anti-apartheid campaigners, trade unionists, journalists and other public figures. Most significantly, the supplement features Irish politicians from all the main political parties calling for sanctions against Israel - chiefly the suspension of Israel from the Euro-Med Agreement. Official Irish government policy is still anti-boycott, but many politicians are starting to realise that the only way to change Israeli behaviour is through sanctions.
County and city councillors have shown more of an appetite for supporting boycott actions. Early 2009 saw motions passed by councils in Sligo and ????? (subeditors note – need to find the name of this Irish town) barring Veolia from future public contracts over its involvement in the apartheid tramline through Palestinian land in East Jerusalem. Following this, we successfully worked with members of Dublin City Council to pass a similar motion in our capital. We have also co-operated with Carrickmacross town councillors who successfully managed to get a motion passed condemning a civic reception for the Israeli ambassador. The council even tore out the page he signed in the ‘distinguished visitors book’!
Following the flotilla massacre, councils across the country have passed resolutions calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and against Veolia. This has been helped by and has fed into a changed media perception of the boycott campaign. In June 2010, an Irish newspaper, the Sunday Tribune, strongly endorsed the campaign.
We have found street actions to be the most effective way of educating people about the boycott campaign. Our actions have increasingly centred on boycott activities, particularly on contacting managers whose shops sell Israeli products and on leafleting and petitioning shopping centres. We have seen Israeli products taken off the shelves and those left covered with ‘boycott Israel’ stickers. In the past the IPSC has highlighted Caterpillar’s role in the occupation, having Limerick declared a ‘Caterpillar-free Zone’ by the city council.
Shop managers know that Israeli products are unpopular among the Irish public, to the extent that they often fail to label or even mislabel them. We now are trying to move to the next stage and make them so unpopular that shop managers see no point in stocking them, already some small shops no longer stock Israeli products. With the ICTU producing a boycott leaflet for distribution to its members and major Irish retailers starting to remove Israeli products from their shelves, we may be reaching that stage.
Besides a broad consumer boycott, we are busy trying to promote smart sanctions against Israel – we are especially interested in leading an international campaign against ‘Israeli blood diamonds’, Irish campaigners have initiated a number of events and written articles on this. Diamonds are a crucial part of the Israeli economy, and as experience has shown, a product vulnerable to pressure. We are campaigning for jewellers to provide certifiably Israel free diamonds, confident that once they do this, people will chose diamonds from countries that respect human rights.
Divestment and Sanctions
On divestment, we are concentrating on the role of CRH and Veolia. CRH is an Irish company that profits from building the Wall in Palestine and settlements in the West Bank. We have launched a CRH divestment campaign and developed campaign briefing information, including a short video, factsheets, online petition, sample letter and so on, all of which is available at our CRH Divestment website (http://ipsc.ie/crhdivest/). We have spoken throughout Ireland about CRH and made links with NGOs and with legal and other researchers to investigate what can be done about CRH’s breaches of international law, both on the legal and the divestment front. This year our key action on CRH was at their AGM which was dominated by the Palestinian question. A visually striking picket outside was complemented by well briefed IPSC members inside the AGM asking question after question on CRH’s link to Palestine. To our delight (and surprise), several of the 400 strong crowd of shareholders spoke up to agree with us and also asked CRH to divest. Our CRH group is now contacting shareholders and trade unions in order to put sustained pressure on CRH to divest from its Israeli holdings.
On Veolia, we have consistently highlighted their role in the East Jerusalem tramline. Irish workers on the Veolia tramline in Dublin are supportive, so much so that in 2006 Veolia had to cancel their plans to have their Israeli tram drivers trained in Dublin. Recently, we have worked with councils to promote divestment resolutions. This has all put the spotlight on Veolia. We are now focusing on the €4.6 billion contract for the Dublin Metro North line which Veolia are competing for – and are demanding that our government exclude this company until they stop building the apartheid tramline in the West Bank.
On sanctions, we have cooperated with other PSCs in the ongoing campaign to suspend the EU-Israel association agreement. Currently our major campaign is to stop our government’s ongoing purchase of Israeli weapons and military hardware. We have informed politicians about this scandal and many have responded positively. Politicians from several political parties have raised this issue in both parliament and the media. Hopefully with enough lobbying and on the ground campaigning we can halt this shameful trade.
Cultural and academic boycott
Here we have had a number of successes. Following protests and campaigns, several Irish cultural institutions including the Irish Film Institute and the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures have refused to co-operate with or accept sponsorship from the Israeli government. We have also joined in international efforts to stop artists playing in Israel. We mobilised strongly over Leonard Cohen in July 2009, and though he did play in Israel, this effectively co-ordinated international campaign was an important step in the development of the international artistic boycott campaign.
Our most significant victory was when Aosdana, the academy of artists sponsored by the Irish state, responded to the boycott demand by overwhelmingly passing a resolution asking all artists to reflect deeply before considering contacts with Israel. Though some Irish artists still accept visits to Israel paid for by the Israeli state, many now refuse to do so. For instance in both 2008 and 2010, Bono turned down invitations to go to Israel, citing personal reasons. Recently, the Irish theatre group, the Gare St Lazare Players were persuaded against visiting Israel. Our plan now is to build on this awareness and urge Irish artists not to even consider going to apartheid Israel.
On the academic front, in 2006, 61 Irish academics called for an end to EU and Irish institutional support for Israeli universities. This number was more than doubled in 2009, when 148 academics signed a similar letter.
The middle two weekends in July 2010 - starting on International Boycott Day on 9 July, Irish solidarity activists were collecting signatures for a petition in towns and cities across Ireland. The petition was to Dunnes Stores – Ireland’s largest retailer – asking them to stop stocking Israeli goods. It was Irish summer weather; heavy rain and wind. People were rushing to take shelter and instinctively avoided our people with clipboards – that is, until they realised we wanted them to support the boycott of Israel. Then they retraced their steps, reached for the pens, reached to be part of the boycott campaign. It was wonderful to see how positive the reaction was, with even Dunnes security guards and policemen signing the petition.
Our plan was to collect 4,000 signatures in two weeks. We collected over 6,000. Two years ago, we would not have received this reaction, nor the positive media coverage we did. Our challenge now is to turn this fresh popular support for boycott into practical results – to get Irish institutions as well as Irish people to support the boycott of Israel. We know from our own history that boycott is a slow but a powerful instrument of change and are committed to intensifying this boycott campaign till Palestine is free.
David Landy is the chairperson of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign