Much has been made of Jonathan Bell’s trip to China, it emerged that his trip was not paid for out of public money nor from the Confucius Institute at the Ulster University
of Ulster – the Irish News reporting that a university spokeswoman said “no” to the question of if the institute had paid for the trip.
His Party, the DUP said that the trip was made in his role as honorary vice president of the Confucius Institute.
An issue arises then in his role with the Confucius Institute, a body aimed at “fostering closer ties between China and Northern Ireland… the CIUU will develop academic, cultural, economic and social ties between the two countries”. The Coleraine based Institute is linked with the Zhejiang University of Media and Communications in south-eastern China – a country where, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 44 journalists/members of the media are being held in prison.
Jonathan Bell is an Honorary Professor of Media and Communication at Zhejiang University, and he has declared this on the register of members interests at the Northern Irish Assembly [3 July register], under section 11 “Unremunerated Interests.” It’s a fairly thorough registry, disclosing that he visited China in 2011 and 2013 at the expense of Zhejiang University and CIUU respectively. [Ed – though he spells “accommodation” incorrectly.] [Kris – he also spells “Zhejiang incorrectly….]
The registry lets us know that he owns two properties and earns rent from one of them, it lets us know that his wife is his part-time secretary and researcher and that Peter Robinson’s son is his constituency manager and Peter Robinson’s daughter-in-law is another part-time secretary… what it doesn’t tell us though is that Jonathan Bell is an honorary Vice President of the Confucius Institute at University of Ulster.
Previously, Jonathan Bell and other ministerial colleagues attended an event in Stormont’s Long Gallery to “mark a new milestone in links between Northern Ireland and China”. Eight Northern Irish schools became “Confucius Classroom Hubs”, then-First Minister Peter Robinson said
“…the Executive places huge value in the important trading, cultural and education links between China and Northern Ireland, made possible in large part to the valuable knowledge provided by the Confucius Institute.”
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said
“Today we are celebrating the continued growth of the Confucius Institute and of the Classroom Hubs, something that will be of benefit not only to our local economy, but also to our society”.
So the question remains, if the Confucius Institute is of such benefit to our economy and the economical links with China that Jonathan Bell would want to nurture and explore (and rightly so,) surely there is a definite interest in his declaring of this at the assembly register of interests.
President and vice-chancellor of Zhejiang University of Media and Communications said of the Confucius Institute link with University of Ulster,
“We very much look forward to the relationship between China and Northern Ireland flourishing through the work of the universities through CIUU across all levels – academically, commercially and culturally.”
So if Jonathan Bell’s honorary boss, at Zhejiang University believes that the Confucius Institute can have any affect whatsoever on a commercial interest here in Northern Ireland, is this not considered something of interest? Surely it’s more of interest than Bell’s role as an honorary professor throwing in the occasional lecture if he happens to be in the area…
The NI Assembly Register of Members’ Interests states:
“The main purpose of the Register of Members’ Interests is to provide information of any financial interests or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in the Assembly, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of the Assembly. Provision is also made for the registration of non-financial interests and other such information as the Assembly may from time to time require to be included. The registration form specifies twelve categories of registrable interests which are described below. Apart from the specific rules, there is a more general obligation upon members to keep the overall definition of the Register’s purpose in mind when registering their interests.”
Whilst an honorary VP position would not expect to have any financial reward, surely one might ask if his position within the institute might perhaps lead others to think that his actions, speeches or votes might be influenced by the role. Section 11 of the interests is specifically for “Unremunerated Interests”.