It’s easy to sneer at the Seanad. Most people don’t have a vote in its elections. Large parts of it are pretty much a rotten borough. It has been a comfortable home to windbags, place-holders, all manner of mediocrities and failed Dáil candidates awaiting another spin on the merry-go-round.
But it has also been the place where some of the best parliamentarians and most courageous advocates for responsible politics in a decent society have found a niche and a platform to make their contribution to Irish public life.
And it was this role that was in evidence this week when the Seanad held a debate at the instigation of Independent Senator Michael McDowell on human rights in China and Ireland's relations with Taiwan.
There is hardly space here to recount the systematic abuse of human rights in China, its extreme persecution – characterised by most western countries and human rights organisations as genocide – of Muslim Uighirs in the Xinjiang province, its crackdown on already sketchy democratic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, its bullying of Taiwan and its repressive policies towards its own people.
Several Senators did a good job of it. Lynn Ruane related reports of the use of systemic rape as a weapon against Uighir women. Her colleagues cited the dozens of credible reports (Beijing dismisses them all as false) of internment, torture and cultural extermination against the Uighirs.
Barry Ward gave people nowhere to hide.
“Make no mistake about it,” he said, “what is going on there is a genocide. I accept the difficult position the Government is in...but as we sit here and talk about it, it is every bit as bad as what was happening on this continent in the early part of the 20th century. It is of the same scale.”
You can read the Seanad debate on the Oireachtas website.
Faced with this evil reality what can Ireland do?
As Senators acknowledged, it is doubtful if Xi Jinping was watching the debate in Beijing with his knees knocking. Ireland won’t influence what happens within China. But there are things we can do, not least by making ours a strong voice within the EU in favour of holding China to account for its behaviour inside and outside its own borders. China might not care a whit what Ireland says or does, but it does care about the EU.
Senators suggested a variety of other actions. Malcolm Byrne gave an impressive speech. Senator Vincent P Martin said they should invite the Chinese ambassador in and also seek to visit Xinjiang province.
Virtually all Senators affirmed the need to keep speaking up about these issues no matter how inconvenient it might be to the Government, which is always seeking to strengthen trade links with the lucrative Chinese market.
Answering for the Government, Junior Minister Colm Brophy insisted that the Ireland does not soft pedal on human rights to avoid annoying the Chinese government.
“We remain pro-human rights. We are not anti-China. As we challenge Chinese policy we do not seek to undermine Chinese sovereignty. Rather, we emphasise the obligation on the Chinese authorities to act in a manner which respects international human rights obligations.”
Simon Coveney, he insisted had “raised our concerns in an open and candid manner”.
No doubt he did; the Chinese have never seemed too bothered, though. It’s a tough but fair rule that unless the Chinese government is annoyed with you, you’re not really standing up for human rights there.
And there is definitely one way of standing up to China that will make Beijing take notice. We can seek closer relations with Taiwan.
Beijing regards the independent, democratic republic as a breakaway province that it intends – some day -–to bring back into line. China hates when European countries conduct friendly relations with Taiwan, a robust democracy with an independent legal system and strong protections for individual rights – exactly the things that we take for granted and are denied to the citizens of the mainland (and now Hong Kong) who live under the rule of the communist dictatorship.
Beijing recently demonstrated just how much it cares when even small nations co-operate with Taiwan. When Lithuania – an EU member – dumped Huawei phones citing security concerns and sought closer ties with the Taiwanese capital Taipei, China reacted with fury, withdrawing its ambassador and clamping down on trade with the tiny Baltic republic. In an almost comically asymmetrical dispute, China has spent months monstering tiny Lithuania in its own media.
Like other EU countries Ireland subscribes to a “one-China policy” which recognises Beijing as the only Chinese government. This is a prerequisite for relations with China, but it does not prevent trade and cultural links with Taiwan. The country operates an office in Dublin, though to preserve Chinese sensibilities it is referred to as the Taipei representative office.
Ireland used to have a corresponding office in Taipei, but closed it in 2012, and – as McDowell related in his Seanad speech – has little to do with the EU’s office there. Why?
TDs should press not just for closer ties with Taiwan, but they should seek a debate on human rights in China in the House. No such Dáil debate has taken place within living memory, though TDs do sometimes raise Chinese issues on foreign affairs questions.
Speaking up matters, it would also be interesting to see what the reaction of the Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl would be. A few years ago he wrote an extraordinary letter to TDs and Senators warning them that fraternising with the Taiwanese would annoy China and damage trade links. It was an extraordinary intervention.
Many EU countries are cultivating closer links with Taiwan. Ireland should be among them. We should speak up for what we believe in, act on our principles and refuse to be bullied.