Bristol picket of Israeli weapons firm Elbit Systems Ltd.

My few words to the rally which braved wind, rain and a hail storm on Saturday 23 March 2024

I would like to speak to you today as an Irishman, as well as a journalist. My grandparents came separately to Bristol in the 19th century and their grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren are now spread around the UK. 

Only last Saturday I attended the christening of one great-great-granddaughter here in Bristol. A decade ago her mother would visit Palestine each year to rebuild properties destroyed by the Israelis. At her daughter’s christening she was wearing the Palestinian Right to Return badge, as were other members of the family. 

We Irish have long stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Ireland was the first European country to call for recognition of the  Palestinian State way back in 1980. 

But our support goes much further back. As Britain’s oldest colony we share the frustration, the bitterness and the anger of a people prevented from controlling their own lives. Remember Britain still lays claim to the Six Irish Counties they call Northern Ireland.

What many Bristolians don’t know is that when Henry II invaded Ireland way back in 1171 he gave control of Dublin to the rich and powerful men of Bristol. A wicker fence was set up around Dublin. It was known as the Pale. It is where the expression ‘Beyond the Pale’ comes from, because beyond the confines of the city the Irish refused to be cowed. It may not have been as high and mighty as Israel’s hideous separation walls, but it served the same purpose. Defining the ‘other’ as less worthy but a foe nonetheless.

It is worth recalling that every, subsequent invasion of Ireland – and there have been many – was launched from Bristol.

And that in West Belfast, renowned for its massive political murals, there is another wall. Once known as the International Wall this huge stretch has now been declared the Palestinian Wall. It depicts the people’s sorrow and their struggle, in an act of reciprocal solidarity.

The Irish have rebelled against the Brutish colonialists many times, and from the 1960s to the 1990s republicans fought a bitter war against the British for civil and human rights. During the Hunger Strikes in 1981 which took the lives of 10 brave prisoners at Margaret Thatcher’s behest, the Palestinian Detainees’ Commission held vigils for them in front of the International Red Cross Committee headquarters in Gaza City. 

And when the first and best known of the hunger strikers died, Palestinian detainees in Israel’s Nafha prison smuggled out a letter which read: “We salute the heroic struggle of Bobby Sands and his comrades, for they have sacrificed the most valuable possession of any human being. They gave their lives for freedom.”

At a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Dublin last November the current Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald declared, “Now is the time for the Irish spirit of ‘Saoirse’, of freedom, of dignity, to assert itself like never ever before. Because this long walk to freedom that is Palestine is our story too.”

I salute those in Bristol, Cambridge, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and around the world who have taken direct action to highlight Elbits System’s culpability in the destruction of the Gaza Strip and the deaths of tens of thousands.

And I applaud the recent formation of Youth Demand which has two simple demands – for humanity by imposing a two-way arms embargo on Israel; and for action on climate change by stopping all new oil and gas developments in the UK. As an old campaigner it gives me great heart to see how many young people are joining in these struggles.

The pity is that so few of their voices are heard in the media. And as journalist I would urge everyone to make their voices heard when you see the press or broadcast media getting things wrong, or failing to report serious wrongs.  As journalists part of our job is to hold the rich and powerful to account. But we also need to be held to account. 

The journalism ethics charity I ran, the MediaWise Trust, had two simple creeds. That press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public.  And that the public has a right to receive accurate information, and to be informed when mistakes are made. It is up to you to let us know. Use phone-in programme. Write letters. Make complaints to the regulators. 

If you think the Palestinian story is not being told, or that Israel is being given too easy a ride – tell us. But also do something that is rarely done. Thank journalists who are doing a good job, especially those who put their lives on the line to keep us informed. Some 130 journalists and media workers have lost their lives in Gaza and the West Bank, in Lebanon and, yes, in Israel. 

Never forget them. Without them we are at the mercy of the demagogues. 

I would like to end with a short poem I came across the other day. It was written by Em Berry, Editor of the Poetry Review. It is called ‘Because of us’

An array of children’s clothes and toys decorate the fence around a Bristol death factory.

This morning I learned that the English word ‘Gauze’ (a finely woven medical cloth)  comes from the Arabic ‘Ghazza’ because Gazans have been skilled weavers for centuries. I wonder how many of our wounds have been dressed because of them and how many of theirs have been left open because of us.

To close for today, the Irish republican slogan was always ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’  meaning ‘Our time will come’. Feel free to repeat it. ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’.

Saoirse.  Peace.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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