McDowell says Ceann Comhairle warned TDs against offending China by engaging with Taiwan

McDowell describes Ó Fearghaíl’s 2018 letter to Oireachtas members as ‘deeply unfortunate’ and ‘regrettable’

Independent Senator Michael McDowell has complained of attempts to influence TDs and Sentors citing a 2018 letter from the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Mr McDowell was speaking at a Seanad debate on China’s human rights record today. The letter had warned TDs and Senators against offending the Chinese government by engaging with Taiwan.

Taiwan, an island off the mainland of China, is regarded by Beijing as a breakaway province. While the west observes a “one-China” policy, Taiwan’s political independence is effectively guaranteed by the United States. China regularly makes threats towards Taiwan.

Ireland does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but has economic and cultural links. Some TDs and senators have promoted the links between the two countries, and independent Senator Michael McDowell told senators that he has previously travelled to observe elections there.


Today’s Seanad debate, proposed by Mr McDowell, is not focussed on Taiwan but rather on China’s human rights record and speakers have made repeated reference to the treatment of the Uighir population and the lack of democratic freedoms in China.

However, the Ceann Comhairle, who is a strong supporter of links between Ireland and China, took the opportunity to “remind members of the current position with regard to Taiwan.”

“This issue is a very important one for our Chinese friends and I would remind members that Ireland, along with all other EU states, as well as the EU itself, adheres to the One China policy,” Mr Ó Fearghaíl wrote.

Lauding the growing economic relationship between Ireland and China and his own role in leading an Oireachtas delegation to China earlier this year, Mr Ó Fearghaíl wrote: “The growth and expansion of trade with China has been hugely beneficial to Ireland, its economy and its people, and is one of our finest success stories in recent times. That economic expansion should be nurtured, and not even inadvertently undermined.”

“Active engagement between members of the Oireachtas and Taiwan can damage the relations between Ireland and China and is in conflict to the long-standing One China policy. As Ceann Comhairle, I have no intention of telling Oireachtas members who they, as elected public representatives, can meet or what functions they can attend. That would never be my wish.

“However, I am aware that there continues to be engagement between some Oireachtas members and the Taiwanese authorities. This can cause serious offence and grave concern to our Chinese friends and has the potential to cause serious damage to Ireland’s developing relationship with China as well as being a danger to Ireland’s national interest.

“I write to members merely to remind them of the One China policy long in place, and to highlight the implications that a parliamentary engagement with the Taiwanese authorities can have on the excellent relations currently enjoyed by Ireland with China.”

Opening the debate in the Seanad this afternoon, Mr McDowell was critical of the Ceann Comhairle for writing the letter, describing it as “deeply unfortunate . . . deeply regrettable”.

He said he was aware of the economic ties between Ireland and China but “that does not mean I have to avert my eyes or close my mouth” about China’s human rights record.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times