The Government has said it "regrets" Saudi Arabia's mass execution of 47 people, including a dissident Shia cleric and a man convicted of the murder of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers.
The execution of the high-profile Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has angered Shia Muslims across the Middle East and caused a major diplomatic row between Iran and Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy. Also among those executed last weekend was al-Qaeda gunman Adel al-Dhubaiti, who was convicted of the murder of Cumbers (36), a BBC cameraman, in Riyadh in 2004.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Ireland opposed the death penalty in all circumstances and, with other EU member states, worked for its suspension and abolition worldwide. "Abolition of the death penalty is one of Ireland's priorities at the United Nations, " said a spokeswoman for the department. "As in all such cases, we regret the recent executions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. "
The Irish position mirrors that of British prime minister David Cameron, who has responded to the crisis by saying the UK opposes the death penalty. The British government has previously come under pressure over human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, considered one of its closest military allies in the Middle East.
On Tuesday France went further by saying it "utterly deplored" the executions, while EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the al-Nimr case raised "serious concerns" regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights.
The Government was criticised in 2014 when it emerged that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton did not raise concerns about human rights during their political engagements on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Mr Kenny said Ireland always raised human rights issues through the EU and the United Nations, though Amnesty International said the failure to address the issues during the visit was of "grave concern".
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan broke all ties with Iran and the United Arab
Emirates downgraded its relations on Monday after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters. Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran on Tuesday. The spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it also “regretted” the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and echoed Ms Mogherini’s call for all parties to act with restraint and avoid inflaming tensions.
Saudi Arabia is Ireland’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. Irish exports to the kingdom were valued at €626 million in 2012, with much of the trade concentrated in areas such as dairy products, industrial machinery, medical devices and infant foods. Bilateral exchanges have developed in recent years in fields such as education and health, with about 3,000 Saudi students currently based in third-level institutions in Ireland.
During his 2014 visit, Mr Kenny said he had congratulated Saudi Arabia on its election to the UN Human Rights Council, saying it was a step forward but that serious issues remained.
When asked about the kingdom’s treatment of women, Mr Kenny replied that he had met some female university lecturers in Riyadh. Admittedly, he said, they all worked in universities exclusively for women, which was “quite a difference from the Irish situation”.
The use of the death penalty has been on the decline worldwide in recent decades, but in 2014 Amnesty International recorded executions in 22 countries – the same number as the previous year. The organisation said at least 2,466 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 2014, an increase of 28 per cent compared with 2013.
Amnesty’s figures did not include the number of people sentenced to death in China, where data on capital punishment is treated as a state secret.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia executed at least 90 people, according to Amnesty, while Human Rights Watch put the figure for last year at 158. Iran used the death penalty even more frequently, executing at least 289 people in 2014, said Amnesty.