Strengthening Bilateral Relations: Ireland’s Engagement with Bangladesh

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On March 18, 2024, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appealed for Ireland’s assistance in extending preferential trade privileges, specifically the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), within the EU market until 2032 rather than the proposed 2029 timeline during Bangladesh’s post-graduation phase. This request was made during a courtesy visit by a prominent Irish delegation led by Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Simon Coveney, at the official residence Ganabhaban. 

Prime Minister Hasina emphasised Ireland’s close friendship and partnership with Bangladesh, highlighting Ireland’s consistent support for Bangladesh in various international forums. She urged Ireland to advocate for Bangladesh’s interests within the EU platform.

Over the past 27 years, Bangladesh’s exports to Ireland have experienced significant growth, with an average annual increase of 16.8%. Starting from $7.1 million in 1995, these exports surged to $466 million by 2022. In 2022, Ireland exported goods worth $34.9 million to Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Hasina urged Irish businesses to consider investing in Bangladesh’s special economic zones and high-tech parks, citing Bangladesh’s potential as a lucrative market for billions of consumers and promising sectors such as information and communication technology (ICT), pharmaceuticals, and agro-based industries. Addressing concerns about misinformation regarding Bangladesh’s labour policies, Prime Minister Hasina emphasised transparency and encouraged direct communication between EU countries and the Bangladesh government to dispel any misunderstandings.

Minister Coveney expressed Ireland’s commitment to further strengthening bilateral relations with Bangladesh, highlighting the inauguration of Ireland’s first honorary consulate in Dhaka as a step towards enhancing people-to-people and trade relations. He pledged technical support to Bangladesh’s technology and agro-processing industries and affirmed Ireland’s continued support for Bangladesh’s socio-economic development in international forums.

Regarding the Rohingya crisis, Minister Coveney advocated for heightened security measures in Rohingya camps, as well as initiatives to engage refugees in income-generating activities and provide permanent and improved housing. In response, Prime Minister Hasina assured the deployment of adequate security personnel in Rohingya camps but acknowledged challenges posed by internal groups. She underscored Bangladesh’s efforts to provide housing on Bhashanchar island for displaced Rohingyas despite opposition from certain international entities, non-governmental organizations, and countries.

However, the recent interactions between Bangladesh and Ireland have set a significant precedent in bolstering bilateral relations. On March 18, 2024, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment of Ireland, H.E. Mr. Simon Coveney, T.D., convened a crucial meeting with the Hon’ble Foreign Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud, MP, at the latter’s office in Bangladesh. This initial encounter served as a pivotal platform for discussions to enhance economic ties, foster trade relations, and explore avenues for cooperation in key sectors. Subsequently, on March 19, 2024, a courtesy meeting transpired between Minister Coveney and Prime Minister’s Private Industry and Investment Adviser, Salman F Rahman, further advancing dialogue on investment opportunities and economic collaboration. These consecutive meetings underscore the commitment of both nations to forge a robust partnership for mutual benefit and regional prosperity.

As mentioned earlier, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment of Ireland, H.E. Mr. Simon Coveney, T.D., held a meeting with the Hon’ble Foreign Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud, MP, on the afternoon of March 18, 2024, at the latter’s office in Bangladesh. During the meeting, the Hon’ble Foreign Minister expressed gratitude for the Irish Minister’s visit, aiming to bolster bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Ireland. He proposed implementing fresh initiatives to foster trade in goods and services between the two nations while also seeking Ireland’s backing for Bangladesh’s continuation of EU’s EBA trade preferences until 2032 and GSP+ benefits beyond 2032. 

Moreover, he extended an invitation for Irish investment in Bangladesh, particularly emphasizing agro-processing, pharmaceuticals, and IT sectors. Additionally, he thanked Ireland for hosting a sizable Bangladeshi Diaspora. He urged the Irish Minister to simplify visa procedures to facilitate more Bangladeshi students and IT professionals seeking higher education and employment opportunities in Ireland.

In response, the Irish Minister congratulated the Hon’ble Foreign Minister on his recent appointment and commended Bangladesh’s sustained high economic growth. He proposed the exchange of delegations focusing on bilateral trade and collaboration in the technological, pharmaceutical, and energy sectors. Furthermore, he supported Bangladesh’s appeal to extend EBA and GSP+ facilities. He highlighted Ireland’s migrant-friendly policies and welcomed more Bangladeshi students and professionals to Ireland. 

The Irish Minister also expressed hope for a prompt resolution to the Rohingya crisis and pledged an additional Euro 1.5 million in humanitarian aid for Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Both ministers discussed the conflict in the Gaza Strip and expressed grave concern over the loss of innocent lives, particularly women and children. They concurred that a two-state solution could pave the way for lasting peace in the region.

Moreover, Bangladesh has extended an invitation to Ireland to establish an economic zone aimed at attracting increased foreign investment to the South Asian nation, which is poised for its formal graduation from the least developed country status in 2026.

During a courtesy meeting between Irish Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Simon Coveney, and Prime Minister’s Private Industry and Investment Adviser, Salman F Rahman, on March 19, 2024, the proposal was put forward. Following the discussions held at the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority’s headquarters in the capital city, Rahman stated, “This marked our inaugural meeting where various topics were addressed. When the prospect of investment in Bangladesh was broached with Ireland, they expressed keen interest.”

Mr. Rahman highlighted Ireland’s interest in investing in Bangladesh’s pharmaceuticals, tourism, information technology, and agriculture sectors, adding, “We have suggested the establishment of an economic zone to facilitate investments in our country.”  

“We are in the process of finalising a memorandum of understanding through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under which both countries will engage in reciprocal investment and cooperation,” Rahman affirmed. He disclosed Bangladesh’s intention to send a delegation to Ireland, a member of the 27-nation European Union, renowned as the primary market for Bangladeshi exports, aiming to glean insights from Ireland’s experiences and successes.

Subsequently, after addressing journalists post-meeting, Simon Coveney noted that he was the first senior Irish government minister to visit Bangladesh officially. Underlining the visit’s significance, he remarked that their tour aimed to fortify the relationship between Bangladesh and Ireland, underscoring the immense potential for trade, collaboration, and partnership, particularly in economic advancement. 

Mr. Coveney emphasized Ireland’s remarkable transformation from one of continental Europe’s poorest nations to one of its wealthiest today, citing the proliferation of multinational corporations. Highlighting the importance of fostering relationships grounded in trust, respect, and equality, Coveney mentioned the impending appointment of a new Irish ambassador to Bangladesh.

The Irish minister envisioned the development of relations between the two nations across various sectors, including aviation, technology, artificial intelligence, and modern agriculture, with companies from both sides contributing to their mutual growth. While acknowledging the success of existing companies such as Primark and Portwest, which employ thousands in Bangladesh, Mr. Coveney expressed confidence in achieving greater milestones through collaborative efforts.

Overall, these interactions reflect a strong foundation of friendship and mutual respect, promising a fruitful partnership between Bangladesh and Ireland in the years ahead. 

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Financial Express [Link]