Monday 21 October 2019

This is not a good time for Kenny to send mixed messages about women's rights

Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The explosive leak that gave us an insight into the Brexit dinner between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker this week was a rare treat.

Politicians meet in private all the time and afterwards say that everything was "cordial" and "constructive".

On occasion, heads of state claim to have "raised" a difficult issue.

Back in 2014, Taoiseach Enda Kenny had one of those meetings with Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday, he recalled: "We've raised the question of women's rights with the Saudi Arabians and I was there myself on a trade mission a number of years ago."

However, a check of the Dáil record showed Mr Kenny told the opposition at the time the issue of women's rights was not expressly raised. In a bid to clear up the muddle yesterday, Mr Kenny offered a new version: "I went to Saudi Arabia on a trade mission in 2014, and as part of that, at my own initiative, I raised the question of human rights with the Saudi authorities, which obviously includes women's rights…"

But now for an inconvenient truth from the pages of the Irish Independent on January 7, 2014. My colleague Donal O'Donovan was on that trip and asked Mr Kenny whether he tackled the crown prince about the country's appalling human rights record.

Here was the Taoiseach's reply: "I congratulated the crown prince, his royal highness, on the fact that Saudi Arabia has been invited to the human rights council of the United Nations and served there in the last number of years.

"I congratulated the Saudis on their leadership in terms of moderation here in the Gulf region and their desire for peace in light of a lot of complex issues."

Not for the first time, Mr Kenny is tripping himself up with his own words. The panicked response to questions about whether Ireland supported Saudi Arabia gaining a seat on the UN's Commission on the Status of Women suggests we did. As Fianna Fáil's Darragh O'Brien said last night: "They've been caught out badly by this. If it was a case that they opposed this, they'd have found a way of getting that out by now."

Government sources made the point Ireland's vote would have been irrelevant because the Saudis were more or less guaranteed a seat anyway. But a battle between practicality and principle is very hard to explain to an electorate that is highly sensitive about the rights of women at the moment.

The controversy has erupted from nowhere and is one that neither Mr Kenny nor Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan could have foreseen.

They are correct to point out that during its time in power, Fianna Fáil never revealed how they voted at such meetings - but that was then and this is now.

This is a Government underpinned by a party which likes to embarrass it, and made up in part by the Independent Alliance which campaigned on the issue of transparency.

The priority theme of the Commission for 2017 is the "women's economic empowerment in the changing world of work".

Average estimated earned income for women in Saudi Arabia is a quarter of that of men. Only Syria and Yemen rank below Saudi Arabia in terms of gender equality.

That's not a record Irish people want to endorse - so Mr Kenny needs to get his story straight.

Irish Independent

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