Placing business above rights of millions is sickening


I REALISE Northern Ireland’s political leaders must try to attract foreign investment. But surely to God, whatever our needs, there has to be a limit to who we’re prepared to deal with.

The sight of the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, kowtowing last week to a visiting delegation from China was sickening.

It defies logic, and much else besides, that officials from one of the most repressive states on the planet should be greeted as potential saviours in, of all places, Northern Ireland.

We pride ourselves here on having built a new equality-based political and social dispensation from the wreckage of a bloody 30-year conflict, which grew out of a denial by our own state of basic civil rights and where every other official pronouncement is peppered with allusions to the sanctity of human rights and civil liberties.

Are we to understand, then, that this concern for basic rights begins and ends at home? Apparently so, for it seems not to have caused the Northern Ireland establishment a second thought that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined; holds hundreds of thousands of its citizens in forced labour camps; does not allow freedom of political expression; barely tolerates religion; and severely restricts movement within the country.

This is not to mention the obscenity of China’s involvement in Tibet and its naked exploitation of developing countries across Africa. Liu Yandong, a member of China’s Politburo who headed the three-day visit, was accompanied by eight ministers.

Patrick Corrigan, a local Amnesty International spokesman, urged local politicians to take the opportunity to raise China’s atrocious human rights record during their meetings with such a high-powered delegation.

Some chance of that. It was clear from the outset that they and their accompanying gaggle of delighted civic leaders and business people were far too concerned with other, more lucrative, opportunities to risk ruffling Chinese feathers over something as abstract as the brutal suppression of millions of far-off people.

Yet one either believes in the inalienability and universality of fundamental rights, or one does not. It really is that simple. If the former is the case, then it should naturally follow that you are as concerned about the rights of the citizens of Chengdu and Chongqing as those of the people who reside in Cullybackey and Crossmaglen (at least concerned enough not to roll out the red carpet for their overlords).

In truth, even if our leaders had had the courage to speak out, it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to the lot of the ordinary person in China. Liu and her cohorts are unlikely to take heed of the representatives of a tiny place they probably have difficulty finding on a map. Besides which, remonstrations don’t carry much weight when attached to an outstretched begging bowl.

This isn’t to disagree with the sentiment behind Corrigan’s plea, far from it, but to maintain that this delegation should not have been welcomed to Northern Ireland in the first place. Robinson and McGuinness refusing to greet Liu would not have made any difference to the plight of the Chinese people, but it certainly would have made Northern Ireland’s position crystal clear, and saved us from looking like a bunch of bare-faced hypocrites.

You could write the script for the excuses that will be trotted out to try to justify this grovelling to the Chinese. Sure haven’t the Irish and British governments both hosted Chinese delegations? So what?

It has to be pointed out that if others want to prostitute themselves, that’s their prerogative. It’s no excuse for Northern Ireland’s leaders not to stand up for what we’re supposed to believe in.

In fact, if Robinson and McGuinness had stood alone and refused to have anything to do with the Chinese, it would possibly have garnered enough international attention to shame other larger nations into rethinking their positions.

Perhaps by engaging economically with the Chinese we can encourage them to change? Don’t make me laugh. Just because China – much like the Russians – is exploiting capitalism to the hilt does not mean it has any more time than it ever did for the usual ancillary irritants of democracy and human rights. But Northern Ireland needs the jobs and the revenue so badly that we can’t afford to be choosy about whom we deal with.

With that sort of thinking, who will we be hosting next? A delegation of thuggish automatons from North Korea, perhaps, provided there are a few jobs on offer? Or maybe a bevy of bigots from Iran, just so long as they arrive bearing gifts? Never mind that in Iran they sometimes publicly hang women and girls from the jibs of cranes for the crime of being raped, and gay people just for existing. We’ve got mouths to feed.

Personally, I’d rather starve than cosy up to the likes of China. Not that anyone will starve in Northern Ireland, no matter how bad things get – which robs us of even the flimsy excuse that African governments can use for their dealings with the Chinese.