Government downplays criticism of Kenny’s Saudi Arabia remarks

Taoiseach moves to clarify previous statement about raising issue of women’s rights

“I raised the issue of human rights with the Saudi Arabian authorities.” Photograph: The Irish Times

“I raised the issue of human rights with the Saudi Arabian authorities.” Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The Government has sought to play down criticism over Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s remarks about raising the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking in Toronto on Friday, Mr Kenny sought to clarify a previous statement that he had raised the issue of women’s rights during a trade mission to Saudi Arabia more than three years ago.

He made the comment to reporters after refusing to reveal how Ireland voted during the recent election of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

“I raised the issue of human rights with the Saudi Arabian authorities, which obviously includes women’s rights, and that’s been followed through at the council meetings where Minister for Foreign Affairs [Charlie] Flanagan has raised specifically the issue of women’s rights and that will continue to be Ireland’s position,” he said.

In Montreal the previous day, Mr Kenny had said he had raised the issue of women’s rights during the trade mission to Saudi Arabia in January 2014.

However, this statement conflicted with what he told the Dáil a few months after the trip. On April 1st, 2014, under questioning from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach said: “The issue of women’s rights was not specifically discussed.”

In a statement released on Friday evening, the Taoiseach’s spokesman said the Government’s concern for women’s rights was “without question” and Ireland had a “strong reputation in promoting gender equality”.

Secret ballot

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan on Friday insisted he will not tell Ministerial colleagues at next week’s Cabinet meeting whether or not Ireland supported Saudi Arabia’s recent election to the United Nations body .

Mr Flanagan said countries noted for their transparency – “like Norway and Sweden – adhered to the convention of not revealing how they voted when Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Commission.

“This is a convention which goes back to 1947 at the UN, and to which we have adhered since we joined in 1955. We have never once during that time disclosed a secret ballot vote; regardless of whether that vote would be viewed positively or negatively if it were disclosed,” Mr Flanagan said.

Mr Flanagan said the point of the secret ballot convention was to ensure that all countries, “not only the bigger or more influential ones”, could vote without the threat of undue influence or persuasion.

‘Unacceptable’

Asked if it would be normal practice for him to tell his Cabinet colleagues how Ireland voted, he said it would not. “I will not be informing my Cabinet colleagues, for the reasons I’ve already outlined.”

Minister for Transport Shane Ross said he and his fellow Independent Alliance Ministers would push Mr Flanagan “again and again” until they received an answer.

“On an issue of this sort, people are entitled to know how the country voted,” Mr Ross said. “I think it is not unreasonable to ask. The idea that it should be behind closed doors is an unacceptable convention.”