Saturday 21 September 2019

Bid to limit fallout from ill-fated trip

Week of controversy for Halligan: diplomatic incident followed by sexist comments ruling

Minister John Halligan Picture: Fergal Phillips
Minister John Halligan Picture: Fergal Phillips
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

South Korea and Japan raised serious concerns with the Department of Foreign Affairs over Independent Alliance minister John Halligan's ill-fated peace mission to North Korea, the Sunday Independent has learned.

The revelation that Mr Halligan's proposed visit to Kim Jong-un's totalitarian state sparked an international diplomatic incident with two Far East economic superpowers is hugely embarrassing for the Government at a time when it is seeking to increase its trade links in Asia.

The incident is even more damaging given that Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed yesterday began a seven-day State visit to Japan and South Korea as part of a drive to boost trade in the wake of Brexit. A senior Government source confirmed Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was forced to intervene after South Korean and Japanese officials contacted Ireland demanding to know the reason behind the Independent Alliance visit to the nuclear dictatorship.

"We had some contact from embassies on the day it was suggested that there would be a delegation of ministers going but we made it clear very quickly that the Government's position was clear and firm on this and that there would be no delegation going to North Korea," the source said.

Fine Gael ministers are furious with Mr Halligan and his Independent Alliance colleagues, Minster for Transport Shane Ross and Minister for Disabilities Finian McGrath, over the impact the proposed visit could have on international relations in the Korean Peninsula.

One Cabinet minister insisted Independent Alliance ministers should stick to their own portfolios and said any conversation between North Korea and Ireland "will not be happening through John Halligan".

In a statement released ahead of his visit to South Korea and Japan, Minister Creed said the trade mission was "critically important against the background of Brexit".

For the next seven days, Mr Creed and his officials will now seek to limit the damage caused by the Independent Alliance's proposal to visit a dictatorship that poses the greatest threat to security in the region.

North Korea's nuclear missile programme poses the single greatest threat to the security of South Korean and Japanese citizens.

A spokesman for the South Korean Embassy in Ireland said they would not be commenting. The Japanese Embassy did not respond to requests for a comment.

News of the serious diplomatic incident comes after a week of controversy for Mr Halligan and the Independent Alliance. After days of public backlash over the North Korea trip, Mr Halligan found himself at the centre of a sexism row when it was revealed he asked a female civil servant if she was married or had children during a job interview.

The Waterford TD, who is on a State visit to Thailand, was forced to defend his comments and said he would pay the €7,500 compensation awarded to the woman by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

The situation was exacerbated when the minister's brother, Brendan Halligan, took to the airwaves to criticise the WRC ruling as "fundamentally wrong". The minister is understood to have been unaware of the intervention.

Minister of State Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and TD Sean Canney are furious with the other members of the group over the damage caused to the Alliance brand over the planned North Korea visit. Last Thursday, the Independent Alliance held a crisis meeting to discuss the fallout from both controversies.

An Alliance source said some members told Shane Ross to "rein in" John Halligan when he returns to Ireland tomorrow.

"Boxer and Sean are both furious with John and there has been lots of comments about reining him and controlling him," a source said.

Mr Ross is understood to have had a number of conversations with Mr Halligan as both controversies escalated. Mr Ross subsequently announced the group would not be travelling to North Korea.

This week, Mr Halligan will meet with Mr Coveney and his officials to discuss North Korea. Yesterday, Mr Halligan confirmed the Independent Alliance would not be travelling to North Korea.

"There has been too much controversy over the trip and I don't want to jeopardise anything for the Independent Alliance with my personal views," Mr Halligan told the Sunday Independent.

However, during his visit to Thailand last week Mr Halligan meet a United Nations official who had spent time living in North Korea.

It is understood he will meet this official in Ireland in the coming weeks to discuss North Korea. It is unclear if this will result in a renewed effort to lead a peace mission to the controversial state.

A Department of Foreign Affairs source insisted Mr Halligan will be having no more engagement with North Korea.

"We have a Department of Foreign Affairs and a Minister for Foreign Affairs for a reason. John is a Minister of State in the Department of Education. If he had any issues he should raised them with Simon Coveney and the department can decide how to approach things," the source said.

Sunday Independent

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