Kenny faces trade-off promoting Ireland Inc abroad

Taoiseach sounded far from convincing when asked about migrants and women

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister. The Irish delegation has made no excuses about the fact that this trip is about trade, investment and creating jobs back home. Photograph:  Maria Sundinemail

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister. The Irish delegation has made no excuses about the fact that this trip is about trade, investment and creating jobs back home. Photograph: Maria Sundinemail

Thu, Jan 9, 2014, 01:00

It is hard to fault the effort Taoiseach Enda Kenny has invested in the Enterprise Ireland trade mission to the Gulf region this week. He talked up, in a convincing manner, his hosts, the merits of the 87 Irish companies on hand to do business, and the Irish economic recovery.

But when you travel to unfamiliar places – it was Mr Kenny’s first time in Saudi Arabia and Qatar – you often encounter difficult issues when it comes to local culture and policies.

In Riyadh, the Taoiseach was asked about the marginalisation of women in Saudi society; and in Doha it was the treatment of migrant workers during a building boom.

On both occasions his tone appeared far less convincing.

The delegation has made no excuses about the fact that this trip is about trade, investment and creating jobs back home.

However, Mr Kenny faces a trade-off between promoting “Ireland Inc” and handling a perception the State will do business wherever it has to, regardless of that nation’s approach to people and their rights.

When questioned in Saudi Arabia about the kingdom’s treatment of its female residents, who were seldom seen at the many meetings held in Riyadh, and are not permitted to drive, Mr Kenny replied that he had met some female university lecturers there.

Admittedly, he said, they all worked in universities exclusively for women, which was “quite a difference from the Irish situation”.

The Taoiseach also said he had “congratulated” Saudi Arabia on its election to the UN Human Rights Council, saying it was a step forward but serious issues remain, before adding that Ireland would work with the kingdom on the issue.


‘Forced labour’
In Qatar he was asked about the treatment of migrant workers, who have been brought in from countries such as Bangladesh, India and Nepal largely to do construction work amid the country’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. Labour organisations and Amnesty International have pointed to low wages and poor working conditions, with Amnesty suspecting there was an element of forced labour in the state.

“My assumption is that those who work internationally on such projects would have proper working conditions and proper facilities and I expect that to be the way,” the Taoiseach said.

Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton, also participating in the trade mission, was questioned about the matter by RTÉ yesterday and said international forums such as the United Nations were the appropriate place to raise such issues.

Asked in Abu Dhabi later if profit was being put before people, the Taoiseach aid trade and investment opportunities were the priorities for the mission.