The Cromwellian logic of the Israel debate

The debate about Israel is one of the most stark and heated, if not violent, in modern politics. The rights of Palestinians to life and self-determination are set against the right of the state Israel to defend itself and its population. Israel is touted as the only liberal democracy in a Middle East full of dictators and absolute monarchies, justifying anything the state chooses to impose on its stateless neighbours.

In looking for parallels, everything from South African apartheid to the Nazis is thrown into the ring. These are obviously emotive comparisons and are generally one-sided in that there is little debate about how bad they were. Few outside the extreme right of politics would argue in favour of apartheid or Nazism.

Woodcut: Cromwell as
Woodcut: Cromwell as “Le Gouvernour of Ireland”

You need to go back in history to find an example that echoes the situation in Israel, Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories that still divides opinion. One example from the history of these islands that fits well is that of Cromwell.

For much of Britain and elsewhere in the world, Cromwell was the father of British democracy. A revolutionary figure that ended the absolute rule of the monarchy, he established a short-lived republic and, despite the Restoration, fundamentally altered the balance of power in Britain.

In Ireland, however, Cromwell was long remembered after his death as being worse than the devil. At least you could do a deal with the devil. The massacre of Drogheda and the plantation of all Ireland were the final nail in the coffin of Gaelic Ireland and the triumph of the British colonial regime. The conditions he left in Ireland led to the 1800 Act of Union (abolishing the Irish parliament), the Great Hunger of the 1840-50s and the development of the radical republican movement that came to dominate Irish politics.

Ireland was the testing ground for the emerging British colonial project. A series of “plantations” were carried out under successive monarchs – Laoise-Offaly (Queen Mary), Munster (Queen Elizabeth) and Ulster (King James). In each case, uprisings by Gaelic leaders were defeated and the land stripped from the indigenous populations and handed to residents of Britain. British people were given land in Ireland and, particularly with the Ulster plantation, thousands moved to Ireland to create new British settlements. The policy was designed to eradicate Irish rebellion through the destruction of Irish language and culture and to solidify the control of the British monarchy.

As the English Civil War was unfolding in England, an uprising broke out against the plantation of Ulster. The Gaelic population, some of whom had become tenants, others who were the remnants of the Hugh O’Neill uprising that precipitated the plantation. Settlers were attacked and an estimated 3,000 killed, though these numbers were massively inflated for propaganda use in Britain.

The two conflicts became conflated as Irish royalists combined with the rebels and Ireland became the focus of the opposition to parliament. With Cromwell’s victory in England and the execution of the king, parliament turned towards Ireland in 1649 and Cromwell took the lead. It was a conflict marked by sieges and massacres, not just Drogheda, but also Wexford, Kilkenny and Clonmel.

The massacre of settlers in Ulster was one of the primary justifications for the invasion and the subsequent brutality. When the parliamentary forces finally triumphed in 1653, all Catholic land was confiscated, Catholicism was banned and many thousands of Irish were driven to the west of the country – “To hell or to Connaught”. Many thousands more were sent into slavery in the Caribbean.

The conquest of Ireland became the template for British colonialism and practices developed in Ireland were applied, in one way or another, across the British Empire in the centuries to come. Yet, the conquest of Ireland remains but a minor detail in the British version of history. In 2002, Cromwell was voted #10 in a 2002 BBC poll of the greatest Britons. In comparison, the actions of Cromwell’s forces in Ireland and the long-term impact on the country continue to be writ large on the Irish view of history.

So, back to Israel:

  • defence of settlers implanted upon land of the conquered – check,
  • extreme military imbalance – check,
  • collective punishment of entire population – check,
  • division of opinion based on perspective, with appeal to democratic credentials – check.
  • prospects of consensus or peace on the ground in the near future – ?

On the last point, the British domination of the whole of Ireland last from the 1650s until the 1920s (and the question of land-ownership lasted until 1938). The situation in the North of the country, though more peaceful, has hardly been settled to anyone’s satisfaction.

However, this period of history was one categorised by imperialism and colonisation the world over. The concept of international law and international bodies responsible for seeking adherence to those laws didn’t yet exist. Perhaps these international institutions may find a way to bring about peace and fairness between Israel and the Palestinian territories in less than nearly 300 years. We live in hope.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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