The flag of Ireland flaps in the wind over the post office in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: AFP
At the beginning of the Second World War Britain's Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax summoned the Turkish ambassador to inquire if a neutral Ankara could throw its lot in with the Allies in that global struggle against fascism. The ambassador told him that the “eastern problem” in his country, an obvious euphemism for the Kurdish issue, could potentially destabilize Turkey if they participated in the war.
Attempting to reassure his Turkish guest Halifax said he knew of this “eastern problem” and asked if Turkey could resolve it as the British had done with the Scottish issue.
“Kurds aren't Scottish,” the Turkish diplomat responded after a pause. “Kurds are Irish.”
Turkish professor Hamid Akin Unver, who recalled this exchange, which he learned from Bernard Lewis, argues that Turkey's approach towards the Kurds has since been “increasing the number of Scottish Kurds and decreasing the number of Irish Kurds.”
Decades later a US Special Forces soldier helping the Kurdish Peshmerga fight the Ansar al-Islam group in 2003 remarked the following to journalist Quil Lawrence, upon looking at the beautiful mountainous landscape of Kurdistan: “I had no idea. Couldn't you be in Ireland or something like that? If this were my land I'd want to own it too.”
Both quotes, while highly anecdotal and from two very different periods, aptly illustrate the shared rebellious nature of both people's and their affection for their respective homelands.
It's therefore curious that there hasn't been a greater recognition of the part of the Irish of the similarities between their history and that of the Kurds. Irish activists and politicians never compare the two histories and solidarity towards the Kurds from Ireland has been minimal. They do, however, frequently compare their country's history to the cause of the Palestinians. Palestinian flags were recently publicly flown over city councils across Ireland, including the capital Dublin. Kurdish flags are a rare, if nonexistent sight in Ireland. Even though Ireland is ostensibly a neutral country it has taken a clear stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet rarely comments, or acknowledges, the Kurds’ own historic drive for independence and self-rule.
Last year was an important centennial in both Ireland and Kurdistan. Ireland commemorated the 1916 Easter Rising, a moment highlighted by Irish nationalists as the opening salvo of the subsequent war for independence. For Iraqi Kurdistan, 2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the tragic beginning of the Sykes-Picot carve-up of the Middle East and a century of denial of their national rights, a process Erbil seeks to undo in the near future.
Ireland attained its independence in 1922. After the September 25 referendum in Kurdistan a Kurdish state may well be declared around the same date Ireland celebrates the centennial of its independence from the United Kingdom.
So why don't the Irish, who frequently refer to their own history as justification to support self-determination of other stateless peoples, rarely identify or sympathize with the Kurds’ struggle for independence?
Irish people familiar with Kurdistan usually attribute it to simple ignorance and argue that if the Irish were more familiar with the history of the Kurds and their desire for self-determination they would naturally sympathize.
There are some tiny exceptions to this general rule, which aren't necessarily encouraging. Earlier this year in Derry in Northern Ireland, for example, Irish Republicans erected a mural in the 'Free Derry Corner' which depicts a common struggle between Irish Republicans in Northern Ireland and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which rules Syria's Kurdish regions.
Also, an Irishman who joined the PYD's armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), to fight Islamic State recently told an Irish tabloid that he sees, “many parallels between the Kurdish struggles and the struggles in Ireland. We are both small countries and we have fought powerful enemies.”
He also said that Kurds have been treated “abominably” by the four states which rule over their territories.
Dermot Meleady, an Irish historian who has single-handedly debunked many of the shibboleths Irish nationalists have about their own historic drive for independence, goes one step further in explaining the present fixation with the Palestinian cause in Ireland and the comparably mute one over the Kurdish cause.
“Until Saddam gassed the Kurds and until the Kurds fought Islamic State few had heard of them,” Meleady told Rudaw English. “Whereas the Palestinians had put themselves on the world map in the 1960s and 1970s with highly publicized air hijackings.”
The leftist political orientation of many Irish activists, the most unrelenting and vocal of whom are members or supporters of Sinn Fein, is another factor Meleady attributes to the striking lack of Irish advocacy for Kurdish self-determination. Even more moderate Irish politicians, who affirm their support to the Palestinians and have even laid wreaths on the grave of the late Yasser Arafat when visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories, seldom utter a word in support of Kurdish rights.
“The countries the Kurds have fought for independence – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – are not perceived in the West to be true colonial powers but are seen themselves as 'oppressed' peoples,” he contends. “Whereas the Palestinians are seen as struggling against white Jewish settler colonists and their US allies, which lends their struggle much more romance in the minds of naive and gullible Irish and other Westerners.”
During the civil war in the Kurdistan Region in the mid-1990s Ireland hosted US-brokered peace talks, in Drogheda, which tried to end that fratricidal conflict. While ultimately a failed endeavor, Dublin nevertheless played a useful role as a host country for these necessary talks.
Today Ireland has no obligation to breach its neutrality on the Kurdish issue as it has long done with the Palestinian one. It could, however, offer its services as a neutral mediator in negotiations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad over secession, something the United Nations has declined to do. Then, possibly in the foreseeable future, Ireland could welcome Kurdistan into the family of nation states as it prepares to mark its first century of independence.