Diplomacy on the pitch
Senator Neale Richmond
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Kageaki Smith
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Kageaki Smith
What’s the reason for your trip to Japan?
I’ve come here to play in the Parliamentary Rugby World Cup. In 1995, Nelson Mandela decided to establish a world cup for parliamentarians. He knew the power of sport, and he knew that within sport, rugby is quite unique in that most teams play each other every year. So, he brought parliamentarians from five countries to South Africa, and they played with golden oldies rules.
I’ve spent a week in Yamanashi Prefecture, in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, with a travelling party of 32 Irish people: six other politicians, a dozen or so parliamentary staff, former politicians, former staff, and guests. We played two matches there — against the New Zealand and British teams — and we played our last match against Japan in Tokyo. Former Japanese Prime Minister [Yoshiro] Mori presented us with a trophy.
This year, there were nine countries playing with over a hundred parliamentarians from around the world who just love rugby: men and women of all ages, all creeds, all colours. The Japanese team included about half a dozen current members of the Diet.
Where else in the world can you go toe-to-toe on the sports field with the president of a country, have a beer and a handshake afterwards, and the next time you meet them, already have a warm relationship? Sport provides us with that special bond.
What is the value of the Rugby World Cup to Ireland–Japan relations?
It’s as valuable as the 2002 FIFA World Cup was — a real watershed moment in Irish–Japanese relations. And this is going to bring them to another level.
I spent a week in this brilliant country, and I’m already in love with it. There’re going to be 25,000 Irish people coming to Japan to watch the games, and I’m excited to see so many Irish people experiencing Japan for the first time.
Could you tell me about your current role as the Senate’s spokesperson on European affairs?
When I came into the Senate in 2016, I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss topics such as Erasmus Plus and the new European budget. But ever since the fateful day of the referendum, my political career has been almost wholly focused on Brexit. I engage a lot with the British media, in particular, but the global media, as well.
I took the Brexit Omnibus Bill through the Senate during an eight-hour debate in February. The Brexit Omnibus Bill, now the Brexit Omnibus Act, was developed by the Irish government in response to the increasing possibility of a no-deal Brexit. It details a range of contingency measures regarding areas such as social welfare payments, transport and protecting health care access.
It’s very important to point out there is no such thing as a good Brexit — for Ireland, for the UK, or for Europe. But I very much hope that, when the UK leaves the EU, we will be the UK’s best friend in Europe, and that we’ll continue what has been a really warm relationship.
What else have you done on your visit?
You don’t come all this distance and not take every opportunity available to engage with the Irish business community and to promote Ireland and Irish–Japanese relations. We’ve met around 20 Japanese partners, we visited the Diet for an official engagement, and I’ve met with about 20 Japanese parliamentarians.
I spoke at the Keidanren and addressed the potential of the Irish–Japanese relationship, but I also went into detail about the impact Brexit could have and what the Irish government has been doing to prepare for it. Then we had a fruitful question and answer session; there are a lot of really concerned business people here. I reassured them that Ireland is in a good place, and that we’re working with the UK and our European partners. I think it’s very important to stress that, post-Brexit, Ireland will be an absolutely consistent partner for Japanese companies.
What opportunities do you see for Ireland here?
There’re a number of key areas. We already have about 80 Japanese companies in Ireland. I think there’s room through the EU–Japan European Partnership Agreement [EPA] for that to possibly double over the next few years — the obvious area being financial services, but also medical devices and pharma.
We’re going to export a lot more goods to Japan now. Our beef has just come to the Japanese market in the past couple of months, and we’re producing some of the best whiskey in the world. We’re also looking to embrace even more Japanese products — Japanese food is hugely popular in Ireland.
Post-Brexit, there’s no reason Ireland shouldn’t be the gateway into the EU for Japanese companies. I very much hope that we can maximise the EPA, and I’m really excited about how big it could get. The sky’s the limit. •