Ministers’ trip to N Korea would be mockery of foreign policy

A propaganda coup for murderous Pyongyang regime is no laughing matter

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un:  desire by Finian McGrath, Shane Ross and John Halligan to attempt intervention in the most dangerous crisis currently facing the planet is a mystery. Photograph:   AFP/KCNA via KNS/STR

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: desire by Finian McGrath, Shane Ross and John Halligan to attempt intervention in the most dangerous crisis currently facing the planet is a mystery. Photograph: AFP/KCNA via KNS/STR

 

The proposed mission to North Korea by the three Independent Alliance Ministers may be an absurd and amusing diversion from day-to-day politics but, at a more serious level, it threatens to make a mockery of Irish foreign policy.

Many unprecedented things have happened in the lifetime of this government but the pursuit of a foreign policy agenda by three Ministers, in clear defiance of the Taoiseach and his Minister for Foreign Affairs, threatens to bring the “new politics” experiment into further disrepute.

The background to the latest demarche by the Independent Alliance goes back to the 1980s when the Workers’ Party embarked on its Marxist-Leninist journey and established relations with a number of communist regimes around the world.

On inquiry from journalists, it emerged that the earnest gentlemen were the fraternal delegates from North Korea

One of the features of party ard fheiseanna was the arrival of a group of men from Asia who took their seats for the opening Friday evening session in the near-empty hall, waiting patiently for proceedings to begin.

They usually had to wait some time as the Workers’ Party members may have been nominal Marxists but they retained Irish notions of time and were usually still clustered chatting outside or having a pint in nearby pubs when the conference was due to start.

On inquiry from journalists, it emerged that the earnest gentlemen were the fraternal delegates from North Korea, one of the poorest and certainly one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Leading figures from the Workers’ Party including party leader Tomás MacGiolla and general secretary Seán Garland visited North Korea on a reciprocal basis.

Garland later became embroiled in a bizarre episode in which the United States authorities alleged that he had been involved in a North Korean plot involving the distribution of forged American dollars in the late 1990s.

He was arrested in Belfast in 2005, where he was attending a Workers’ Party ard fheis, on foot of an extradition warrant from the US. Released on bail, he returned home to Dublin and contested the extradition request in the Irish courts.

There was a vocal campaign against his extradition, supported by a range of left-wing politicians and trade unions but in the event the High Court in Dublin refused the US extradition request.

Fraternal relations

One of the members of the Workers’ Party in those far-off days of fraternal relations with the regime of Kim Il-sung (grandfather of the current dictator Kim Jong-un) was John Halligan, now a junior Minister in the Fine Gael-led government.

He can be forgiven for a bit of nostalgia for the old days but whatever possessed his two ministerial colleagues, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross, to go along with an intervention in the most dangerous crisis currently facing the planet is a mystery.

While the general reaction has been to laugh at the antics of the three Ministers, it is far from a laughing matter as it represents a small propaganda coup for a murderous regime which is threatening to unleash a nuclear holocaust.

The negative response did not deter the three Ministers, who said they were sticking by their plan to stage a parliamentary visit to North Korea

The intervention of the North Korean embassy in London to invite the three Ministers to a meeting to discuss a potential visit shows that the regime in Pyongyang is well aware of its propaganda potential.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to face questions about the visit during an investment promotion in San Francisco and made it clear that he didn’t want the three to pursue the issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs was even more direct, saying bluntly that it was opposed to the proposed visit.

The negative response did not deter the three Ministers, who said they were sticking by their plan to stage a parliamentary visit to North Korea. The Taoiseach has said he would not be sending anybody to the airport to stop them going. In the Dáil on Wednesday, he repeated there would be no Government mission to North Korea but said the three Ministers could travel where they liked at their own expense.

Policy vs whim

That raises an important question about whether Ministers can involve themselves in foreign policy issues on a whim. The latest political crisis in the UK over international development minister Priti Patel’s unauthorised discussions with government figures in Israel is an example of how other countries find it simply unacceptable that ministers can launch their own foreign policy initiatives.

For the moment, the proposed visit to North Korea remains an embarrassing stunt. Fianna Fáil spokesman James Lawless made the pertinent observation that Independent Alliance Ministers had a habit of going off on tangents and ignoring their actual roles and duties as Ministers.

The bottom line is whether a Cabinet Minister and two Ministers of State can act against the wishes of their own Taoiseach and Cabinet on an important international issue and have it regarded as simply a private matter. A proposed visit to North Korea is the last thing that should threaten the stability of the Government but it more than a laughing matter.

As for the Independent Alliance Ministers, the North Korean episode has the capacity to do fatal damage to their credibility. Becoming the butt of a national joke may be harder to recover from than anything relating to their performance or lack of it in office.

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