Minister in Tibet Flap

FOREIGN Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern has defended Cabinet colleague John Gormley over his comments about Tibet that prompted the Chinese ambassador to Ireland to stage a protest walkout from the Green Party annual convention in Dundalk last weekend.Gormley was delivering his party leader's address to the conference when he condemned "flagrant" human rights abuses in Tibet and called on the Chinese government to enter into dialogue with spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.Gormley told cheering delegates that human rights must extend to all countries and cultures. He said one country which had been exploited and suppressed and suffered for far too long was Tibet.That was when the Chinese ambassador, Liu Biwei, stood up and then walked out, accompanied by two aides, in full view of television cameras and photographers.The ambassador later defended his strong protest which, he said, he felt he had to make. He said the Chinese people loved peace and wanted good relations with Irish people. "I hope our relations with Ireland, including economic relations, can go on," he said.He added that he had been invited to the convention to participate. He had not expected Gormley as leader of the Greens to say what he had said.The ambassador claimed Gormley's position that Tibet was a country was "totally wrong." Around 200 countries in the world now recognized Tibet as an integral part of China's territory. Gormley had accused the Chinese government "without knowing what is truly happening there."Ahern, who is a member of the Greens' ruling coalition partner, Fianna Fail, defended Environment Minister Gormley and dismissed talk of a diplomatic row as "overblown."He said Gormley had discussed what he was going to say with him in advance.Ahern reckoned the Chinese protest may have been sparked by Gormley's "slip of the tongue" in referring to Tibet as a country. He said, "The Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, isn't even referring to Tibet as a separate country."The Dalai Lama accepts that they are not looking for an autonomous Tibet, which is an awful lot different to an independent country. That may very well be what the ambassador took exception to."Gormley was unrepentant. He said the Chinese Ambassador had been informed in advance of the reference that would be made to Tibet."There is a thing called freedom of speech which I believe in as a democrat and that is not a feature of the Chinese state, unfortunately", Gormley said.

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