Northern Ireland has drifted aimlessly since January 2017, when its government collapsed. In the absence of seasoned politicians at the helm, the Belfast City Council has attempted to make foreign policy on its own. Belfast, a city famous for building the ill-fated cruise ship Titanic, is headed for a major collision, if its local politicians continue their experiment in amateur international relations.
On June 5, a city council subcommittee led by Deirdre Hargey voted to block a planned trade mission to Israel. She explained that the council was concerned with the “ethical trading” implications of the trip in light of actions “perpetrated against the Palestinian people.”
Earlier this month, after another councilor proposed reinstating the canceled trade mission, the council devoted nearly one-fifth of its five-hour meeting to discussing a boycott of the Jewish state. Though the city has plenty of important matters to address, it chose to spend its time debating and confirming the previous decision by its subcommittee. And by entering the fray of Mideast politics, the council will likely embarrass itself, cause Belfast economic harm, and offend one or more parties of a contentious conflict.
While Hargey’s subcommittee blocked the mission to Israel, it had no qualms about approving at the very same meeting a business mission to Shenyang, China, a sister city of Belfast since 2016. In fact, Belfast has enjoyed extremely cordial relations with China. Hargey traveled to Shenyang in September 2018 to promote Belfast as a destination for Chinese tourists. And in May 2019, Belfast Mayor John Finucane welcomed China’s consul general to Northern Ireland along with Chinese business and media leaders to Belfast’s City Hall.
China’s atrocious human rights record raises serious concerns about the consistency of Belfast’s ethical trading standards. The authoritarian government in Beijing has committed grave human rights violations, including allegedly conducting a systematic organ harvesting operation against Falun Gong members, even in Belfast’s sister city of Shenyang; forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees; and detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs.
During their July 1 meeting, some Belfast councilors addressed this dilemma head on, asking why the city should single out Israel while it maintains ties with China. Councilors supporting a boycott of Israel stressed that there is an international boycott of Israel, but not of China. Those councilors said that if the oppressed in China called for a boycott, they would respect it. Councilor Kate Nicholl was unimpressed, charging that there is “an element of hypocrisy” in Belfast’s support of BDS, the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. “I’m pretty sure the million Muslims who are in a concentration camp in China would make similar requests, but they can’t,” Nicholl stated.
Some councilors warned that Belfast could be guilty of anti-Semitism by backing BDS. Councilor David Graham asked his BDS-supporting peers to “recognize the negative impact that the BDS has” on the city’s Jewish community, especially by turning Belfast into a forum to fight out the Arab-Israeli conflict. Councilor Brian Kingston reminded his pro-boycott colleagues that Jews immigrated to Israel for safe haven and that “challenging the existence of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic.”
The July 1 debate was a stark reminder of how the city council’s foray into foreign policy may embarrass and undermine Northern Ireland. Councilor Seamas de Faoite warned that promoting a boycott of Israel could backfire, making Belfast the target of an ethical trading prohibition for its record on LGBT and women’s rights. (Northern Ireland has lagged behind most of Europe in LGBT rights and remains the only country in the United Kingdom without gay marriage.)
Meanwhile, Councilor Nicholl suggested that Belfast apply an ethical trading screening to its commercial ties with the United States. In the absence of a proper government, Northern Ireland’s capital city is now discussing boycotting the world’s largest economy and leader of the free world over ethical trading concerns.
Some councilors tried to steer Belfast away from the iceberg and remind their peers that their role is to improve the lives of their constituents, not to turn the city council of the United Kingdom’s 12th largest city into a court of international relations. Councilor Graham exhorted his colleagues that they should “want Belfast to be open for business.” Councilor Kingston warned his peers not to “talk ourselves out of all our international relations.”
These city councilors in Northern Ireland, which has its own difficult and complicated past, are wading into Middle Eastern conflicts instead of addressing housing, traffic and business issues a city council should handle. Belfast should avoid the trouble that comes with lashing oneself to the mast of the BDS movement, whose double standards often embarrass those who join the cause without seeing it for what it is.