Michael McDowell: Time to stop kowtowing to China over Taiwan

Ireland has no representative office in Taiwan, the world’s 21st-largest economy

While seeking a place on the United Nations Security Council, you might think that Ireland, as a small independent state committed to a world order based on peace, international law and human rights, would stand up bravely for those values whenever given the opportunity. You would hope that Ireland would use its membership of the international community to attempt to make a difference.

Ask yourself if you can recall a newspaper headline or a clip on the radio or television news or a lengthy radio interview in which the Irish government has sharply and unambiguously spoken out against Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province in northwestern China.

Let’s remind ourselves that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Uighurs have been rounded up and sent to newly-built concentration camps to be re-educated in relation to their religion, culture, language and political beliefs under a horrific regime of humiliation. This campaign of terror has been unleashed by President Xi Jinping and is defended vigorously by the Beijing government.

Voters know that Beijing's offer to Taiwan of a 'one country, two systems' policy is a complete fraud

Doubtless there are some documents in Iveagh House expressing concern on these issues. But few Irish people have any knowledge of our official concerns or as to whether or where they have been expressed.


When Zhang Chunxian, the man believed to have to have overseen Beijing’s Uighur concentration camp policy, visited Ireland last summer, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney simply did not raise the matter with him, claiming that he did not have “enough time” to do so at their meeting. But his department said that he had raised human rights “generally”, and pointed out that Ireland had co-signed a letter of concern at UN level and had raised the Uighur issue privately in bilateral discussions with Chinese diplomats.


Taiwan is a free and democratic state with a population of 23 million living on an island off the east coast of China. This week Taiwan held totally free and fair elections in which 14 million people, more than 72 per cent of its registered voters, went to the polls and re-elected a woman president, Tsai Ing-wen, and gave her Democratic Party a clear majority in the national assembly, the legislative Yuan.

The more Beijing-leaning KMT party had a historic setback. The government’s highly successful campaign was hugely assisted by the Hong Kong crisis. Voters know that Beijing’s offer to Taiwan of a “one country, two systems” policy is a complete fraud. Parliamentarians from Sweden, Denmark, the United States and other countries, including Ireland, were invited by Taiwan’s government to observe the elections, attending rallies of the major parties, visiting polling stations and attending the national count centre.

I led a five-person group of Oireachtas members last week to Taiwan to observe the elections and to meet a number of ministers and holders of high office. We also met diplomats from other EU member states. We had a lengthy meeting with Taiwan’s foreign minister, Su Jia-chyuan.

To our dismay, we discovered that Ireland is one of the outliers among the western states in its relationships with Taiwan. We kowtow to a very unusual extent to Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan. Seventeen EU member states conduct de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan through representative offices. The EU itself has a substantial mission to Taiwan.

Ireland, unfortunately, has no such representative office and has little or no contact with the EU representative office in Taipei. To show how bad things are, Taiwan is having considerable difficulties even negotiating a double-taxation agreement with Ireland.

We are pursuing a policy of unique timidity in relation to China and Taiwan

Official Ireland even warns members of the Oireachtas against travelling in groups to Taiwan on the basis that it may endanger Irish trading relationships with mainland China. This official policy of isolating Taiwan is simply not shared by most western democracies. Other groups of parliamentarians from western democracies were present to observe the elections – none of them expressing any reservations or concerns about Beijing’s reaction.

Taiwan is the 21st-largest economy in the world. If there were a G21, Taiwan would qualify for membership. Although half the size of Ireland geographically, Taiwan is a major player in the world economy. And yet official Ireland has practically nothing to do with Taiwan and is utterly afraid of offending Beijing by any interaction with Taipei.


The absence of any official representation of Ireland in Taiwan was the subject of considerable dismay informally expressed by officials, business people and diplomats whom we encountered in our week-long stay. Even Luxembourg has decided recently to open a representative office in Taipei.

But we are pursuing a policy of unique timidity in relation to China and Taiwan.

What is the point of Ireland’s seeking election to the UN Security Council if our Minister for Foreign Affairs cites absence of time to explain his abject failure to raise the Uighur concentration camps with the man who actually organised their construction?

In a week when 14 million Chinese people used their votes to freely select a Taiwan government that is opposed to Beijing’s cruel policies on human rights and democratic freedoms, is it too much to ask that Ireland would at least deal with Chinese issues in the same way as the majority of EU member states do?