Saturday 22 October 2016

Seanad's silent on Syria but Israel's there for the kicking

Published 29/07/2014 | 02:30

Residents run in a damaged site due to what activists claim was from shelling by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a market in central Duma in the eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus
Residents run in a damaged site due to what activists claim was from shelling by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a market in central Duma in the eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus
Smoke from Israeli strikes rises over Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. AP Photo

Right now, thousands of Christians are being driven out of Iraq and Syria and from places where they have lived for almost 2,000 years.

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In the Iraqi city of Mosul, Islamic extremists have taken the property of Christians and forced them to either convert to Islam, flee or be killed. In Syria, Christians have been crucified by black-clad militants; while in Nigeria, churches have been burned and worshippers killed.

But you don't hear much protest about all this in Ireland, which is odd given that we used to be a predominantly Christian country that spoke up for the persecution of others. But those days seem to be gone. You certainly won't be hearing a special Seanad debate about it.

Perhaps the fate of Christians seems a bit old-fashioned for modern Ireland, or perhaps Iraq and Syria seem too far away, even though 160,000 people have died in the civil war there.

And yet, by contrast, this week the Seanad is to be recalled for a special debate on Israel and Gaza – which are right next to Syria. Now, unless you are a hermit, you cannot be unaware of the Gaza conflict – the rockets, the airstrikes, the buildings shattered and children killed.

There have been marches all over Ireland and radio discussions and a huge media focus. The conflict is bogged down between Israel and Hamas, and shows no sign of abating. Great peacekeeping energies by the US, the EU and the UN have failed to resolve the conflict.

So what exactly is the point of the Seanad debate? What diplomatic ideas and suggestions can our senators offer that others have not? Or, as one quoted FG source put it, 'what exactly can they do about the situation except yap about it'?

Of course we will get denunciations of violence and plaintive appeals to the warring parties to settle their 'divisions through peace and dialogue', but it will be nothing that we haven't heard many, many times already.

Surely senators can individually speak out on the Gaza crisis, as some have already been doing – such as the impressive Averil Power – and thereby get more publicity than they would at a repetitive 'special session' of the recalled Seanad? And recalled, by the way, as it wasn't for any part of our economic crisis.

After all, this is not going to be a 'debate'. All of the speakers without exception will presumably be condemning Israel. There will be, one assumes, no one putting the other side's case – that Israel is threatened by Hamas rockets and tunnels and wants security and recognition.

Our new Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan will not be getting involved in any free debate with the senators about the Gaza conflict.

His remarks and replies will be tightly scripted by Foreign Affairs officials who, on this issue, above all foreign issues, they keep a tight control over.

Hence, we had the Government's abstention on a United Nations Human Rights Council motion for an immediate inquiry in Gaza and a robust and calibrated defence of this stance by Irish Ambassador Patricia O'Brien.

Unfortunately, this special debate on Gaza suggests more about our senators' self-importance. For example, Fianna Fail Seanad leader Darragh O'Brien claims that "if the Irish parliament remained silent on this issue it would mean that the Irish people were silent on it".

But this is a ridiculous assertion, and shows such legislative vanity. Our parliament is in recess, after all – it is mid-summer. What about the thousands who have been marching about Gaza, and all the non-stop online protest?

O'Brien's grand claim seems to suggest that speaking out on human rights issues only has validity if it is expressed through the people's parliamentary chamber – and preferably, for Senator O'Brien, its second house.

But as well as showing self-importance, the Seanad recall also shows a dangerous mono-focus in its selection of conflicts and a continuation of the apparent bias in Ireland on the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

Israelis already see Ireland as one of the most hostile countries to their case, and this debate, with senators lining up to give it a kicking for the TV, will only consolidate that assumption.

In the same way that one hardly ever sees Irish protests at the embassies of Iran and Russia over their human rights abuses, so you are most unlikely to see any special Seanad debates on countries beyond Israel and Palestine.

Interestingly, the Seanad motion has now been reframed so it will also examine events in Ukraine; but this looks like a fig-leaf to cover up its actual anti-Israel focus. In fact, it makes the recall look even more ridiculous.

Are we really recalling our senators to debate events in the Ukraine? Come off it.

Irish Independent

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