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The Boycott Campaign in Ireland

Written by  David Landy

Using boycotts in popular struggle against oppression has a long history in Ireland. Irish people enthusiastically supported the South African anti-apartheid call for boycott, and boycott is an equally central element of our support for Palestinian resistance. While the Irish government has remained stubbornly deaf to the Palestinian call for boycott, Irish civil society has begun to respond.

The word 'boycott' itself originates in Ireland. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832 - 1897) was a real person, a brutal English land agent in the late nineteenth century, and one of many who enforced English rule over Irish land. In 1880 the newly-formed Irish Land League advised locals to ostracize him, and the people heeded the Land League's call. No one would harvest the corn on his land, no-one would serve him in shops, no-one would tend to his house or deliver his post.

 The campaign forced Captain Boycott to leave Ireland, and in so doing he gave a new word to the language. More importantly he showed the Land League's strength and gave them their first major victory. 130 years later and Irish people still know the power of boycott as a weapon against the powerful, oppressive and unpopular. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign is pursuing the boycott of Israel on a number of levels - cultural, academic, consumer boycott and through divestment.

Cultural and Academic Boycotts

 There have been a number of BDS movement successes in Ireland. 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 the Israeli government or accept their sponsorship.

 Importantly Aosdana, the academy of artists sponsored by the Irish state, has responded to the Palestinian call for boycott by overwhelmingly passing a resolution that asked all artists to reflect deeply before considering contacts with Israel. Some artists still accept junkets to Israel paid for by the Israeli state, the latest culprit being the writer Niall Williams. But Irish artists are becoming increasingly aware that such contacts are unacceptable to their fans and the general public, and the role such visits play in legitimizing Israel's apartheid system. For instance, Bono recently turned down an invitation to go to Israel to celebrate the Nakba. Although he cited personal reasons, there can be no doubt that BDS campaign communication about the meaning of his visit had a significant impact on an artist whose image is strongly associated with morality and support for human rights.

 Consumer Boycotts and Divestment

 Here, we've been raising awareness by asking shops not to stock Israeli fruit and vegetables. We've found out that Irish people don't particularly like Israeli products. A leading Irish wholesaler has told us that he generally doesn't stock Israeli goods, simply because people don't tend to buy them. Other shops have reported that they have tried to stock fruit and vegetables from elsewhere, but that it is hard for them to find some fresh herbs that are not Israeli.

 Our main consumer boycott campaign has focused on Israeli potatoes which flood Irish shops in the late spring. We've been contacting supermarkets and handing out leaflets outside shops. Although only one or two small shops have agreed to stop stocking Israeli goods so far, the issue has resonated with the public and we plan to maintain this campaign. One reason the public has responded positively, in addition to solidarity with Palestine, is the negative effect of selling Israeli potatoes on Irish potato farmers.

BDS activists in Ireland have also been working to expose Israeli diamond exports, a major part of the Israeli economy. In co-operation with solidarity groups worldwide, we have initiated a campaign to raise awareness about the extent of Israeli involvement in the diamond business. We have systematically campaigned for Irish jewelers to provide certifiably Israel-free diamonds, confident that once they do this, people will choose diamonds from countries that respect human rights. The fact that there is growing global awareness about the controversies surrounding diamonds, evidenced by the popularization of the term 'blood-diamond,' is a factor that we hope will help in sensitizing the general public to what they are supporting when they purchase an Israeli-cut diamond.

The main divestment campaign has concentrated on Veolia, the company constructing the illegal tramline in and around Jerusalem. The campaign's research has revealed that this company has many public contracts in Ireland, and we've been contacting Irish politicians, telling them of Veolia's record and of the international campaign against them.

 This is only the beginning of the campaign. We know from our own history that the boycott is a slow instrument of change, but we also know that it is an powerful one. As a tool, it comes with its own ratchet effect - success in one area makes success elsewhere easier. And so, in Ireland we are committed to sustaining and intensifying this Palestinian-led boycott campaign.

David Landy

David Landy

David Landy is an Irish-Jewish activist, involved with the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He is currently in the Department of Sociology in TCD, doing his research on English Jewish groups critical of Israel and Zionism.