Stormont’s leaders have been urged to publish minutes of a meeting with a senior Chinese official amid claims they said they respected new security laws in Hong Kong.
The comments were attributed to First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a teleconference with Chinese consul general in Belfast Madame Zhang Meifang last month.
A translated version of a report that appeared on the consul’s website claimed the ministers stated that the Northern Ireland executive “understands and respects Hong Kong’s national security legislation”.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill moved to distance themselves from the comments on Tuesday.
The new laws, imposed by Beijing at the end of June, have given the authorities more powers to clamp down on and punish pro-democracy protesters.
They have been met with widespread international criticism amid claims the powers undermine free speech and curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy under the long-established “one country, two systems”.
The story about the Stormont meeting with Madame Zhang, which was reported by the Irish News on Tuesday morning, has prompted calls for clarity.
Amnesty International is among those urging the executive to make public its own account of the meeting.
Mrs Foster said she would be writing to Madame Zhang to voice disappointment. She said her position on Hong Kong was no different to the UK Government’s.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the new laws as a violation of China’s treaty with the UK when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997.
The DUP leader tweeted: “My position on Hong Kong is the same as that of HMG.
“The article in today’s press misrepresents what was said at our meeting with the Chinese consul general.
“I will be writing to Madame Zhang to underscore my disappointment.”
Responding to the report, Ms O’Neill tweeted: “I made it very clear that I supported the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ international agreement.”
Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty highlighted that the meeting happened days after images emerged that appeared to show hundreds of hooded Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province being transported from a train station.
Mr Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, said:
“The Chinese government says that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have endorsed their draconian actions in Hong Kong and remained silent about human rights violations in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.
“Surely this cannot be true,” he said.
“If this is an accurate report of the meeting, then the First and deputy First Minister have let down the people of Northern Ireland and betrayed the people of Hong Kong and the Uighur community in China.
“We need to hear a clear public condemnation from Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill of what the Chinese government is doing in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
“Hong Kong is suffering a brutal crackdown on human rights.
“The new National Security Law is a licence for political repression, as shown by the raid on The Apple Daily newspaper offices and arrest of its staff as well as the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates from upcoming elections.
“Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, northwest China, an estimated one million Muslim people have been interned in so-called re-education camps.
“If the First and deputy First Minister did challenge these human rights abuses, given the official Chinese report, we now need clear evidence of that.
“The Northern Ireland Executive must urgently publish its note of the meeting.
“We cannot have our highest elected representatives tacitly going along with China’s egregious human rights violations, whether in Hong Kong or mainland China.”
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister also called for clarification.
“In light of the appalling record of the Chinese government on human rights and disregard for the international agreement which is still binding in regard to Hong Kong such comments, if accurate, would be totally inappropriate and I believe give an entirely inappropriate impression of how the people of Northern Ireland view what is currently taking place in Hong Kong,” he said.
The Executive Office did not immediately move to publish a record of the call.
A spokeswoman for the Stormont administration said the call involved a briefing by the consul general on the situation in Hong Kong.
She said the ministers emphasised their “awareness of all the issues”.
“Ministers held a courtesy call with the Chinese consul general as part of their regular communications on areas of interest to the Executive,” said the Executive Office spokeswoman.
“The consul general also read a Chinese government statement on Hong Kong.
“International relations are not a devolved matter, but Ministers emphasised their awareness of all the issues, including the UK and EU positions, and stressed their hope for the matter to be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.”