Sunday 18 August 2019

Peace talks with North Koreans? Lads, please stick to the day jobs

'Halligan’s Korean trip is a characteristic display of his naivety mixed with arrogance.'
'Halligan’s Korean trip is a characteristic display of his naivety mixed with arrogance.'
John Downing

John Downing

Finian McGrath has come out swinging and he is not ready to relent on moves to open nuclear peace talks with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. Many in the Government are horrified, while others just nod their heads and laugh wryly.

As far as the Opposition, especially Fianna Fáil, is concerned, this one is a gift. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney are determined that this peace mission is simply not going to happen and they want it tidied away as quickly as possible.

Mr McGrath's Independent Alliance colleague, Waterford TD John Halligan, is due to get a full update on the North Korean situation as part of efforts within the Coalition to stand down the endeavour, which also includes Transport Minister Shane Ross.

Neither the Taoiseach nor the Foreign Affairs Minister were aware of their Independent Alliance colleagues' foray into international diplomacy until it was revealed in the media last Friday. Mr Halligan tried to style the demarche as something being undertaken in the trio's role as TDs, rather than as members of the Government team.

"The greatest threat to peace in the world is on the Korean peninsula. We're not going as members of the Government, we're going as three politicians," John Halligan told RTÉ's Seán O'Rourke.

"Any TD is at liberty to go to a country and visit. We're not doing anything sensational, we're not taking sides, we're trying to initiate peace talks," he said.

Asked what he would say to Kim Jong-un, Mr Halligan said: "I would ask him to engage with democracy."

It was a characteristic display of naivety mixed with some arrogance.

Mr Ross and so-called 'super junior minister' Mr McGrath both attend Cabinet. Mr Halligan is a junior minister for science.

As such, they are not entitled to undertake international missions as "ordinary TDs". Equally, there is a clue in the job title of Mr Coveney as Foreign Affairs Minister and, in the very unlikely event of such an initiative from Ireland, it would fall to him and his officials.

The Government needs to send a single united message on international affairs and on matters such as this we need to maintain solidarity with our EU partners.

At all events, the idea of talking about democracy with one of the world's greatest despots, who frequently demonstrates signs of great instability, is beyond belief.

There have been many criticisms that the trio should stick with "the day jobs". Mr McGrath, in his role as Disability Minister, is on firmer ground in rebutting such comments. He can point to an expanded disabilities budget and progress on Beaumont Hospital, close to his Dublin Bay North constituency. There are more questions about the other pair's performance since entering this minority Coalition on May 6, 2016.

It seems extraordinary. But there are doubts that, 18 months after taking on a Government post, Mr Halligan fully appreciates that he is no longer a campaigning opposition activist.

The difference of approach by the other Independent ministers, Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten, is vast and complete.

They avoid seeking publicity much beyond their day jobs within Government and try to advance the action.

There is, however, one thing to be said for Mr McGrath's forthright comments in this newspaper today.

The people of North Korea have suffered greatly, the scale of death and destruction they suffered through the three years of war in the early 1950s is long forgotten, if it was ever appreciated.

He cites the following extraordinary statistics. In World War II, the UK lost 0.94pc of its population, France 1.35pc and the US 0.32pc. But in the 1950-1953 Korean War, North Korea lost 30pc of its population, 78 cities were razed by American bombers and thousands of villages were also destroyed. That, of itself, is food for thought.

The incident also again tells us much about so-called 'new politics'. The Independent Alliance is very definitely not a political party.

So Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Seán Canney are entitled to have nothing to do with the trio's diplomatic foray, which the pair see as doing nothing for their re-election chances.

Equally, the Independent Alliance clearly reserves the right to kick against the Fine Gael partners every now and again.

This smacks of political immaturity - but there you have it.

Irish Independent

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