Updated: 04/05/17 : 13:41:46
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Minister upholds secrecy over Saudi Arabia UN seat vote

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan has said he will not be disclosing how Ireland voted in Saudi Arabia's successful bid to secure a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

The minister said there had been a long-standing tradition and policy of non-disclosure on how any country votes, and he would not depart from that convention.

In response to Opposition calls on the issue, the minister said Fianna Fáil governments over the years had also observed the convention.

RTÉ reports that Fianna Fáil spokesman on foreign affairs Darragh O'Brien earlier accused Mr Flanagan of "hiding behind his officials", and demanded he clarify whether the Government voted for Saudi Arabia joining the commission.

Mr O'Brien said the minister needs to "tell the truth" about the vote, and said Fianna Fáil would insist it gets answers.

He said women in Saudi Arabia were "effectively second class citizens in their own country".

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Mr O'Brien said he would raise the matter in the Dáil today and also with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The matter is to be debated at the next meeting of the committee.

Mr Flanagan said he was very concerned at the status of women in Saudi Arabia and had raised this matter specifically with the deputy foreign minister there on a visit before Christmas.

He said Ireland has a long-standing record in the area of women's rights and children's rights.

In a statement this afternoon, Mr Flanagan reiterated his position, saying: "It is my strong view that it would be very damaging to Ireland's ability to conduct international relations successfully if we moved away from this established practice.

It would be irresponsible of me to abandon a practice that has been in place for over six decades, observed by all previous governments and is grounded on protecting and promoting the values of small countries on the world stage."

Opposition parties have been critical of the Government's position. In a statement this morning, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan said: "I am demanding the Department of Foreign Affairs to clarify whether Ireland voted in favour of Saudi Arabia securing a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

"If it is a case that the Irish Government did support the Saudis, it is a disgraceful state of affairs."

Labour spokesperson on foreign affairs Ivana Bacik said: "It is outrageous that Saudi Arabia is now elected as a member of the Commission, and very worrying to see reports that five European states may have voted in favour of its membership.

"I call now on the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, to clarify whether Ireland was one of the states which supported Saudi membership."

Independents4Change TD Mick Wallace said Irish people are "entitled to know" whether Ireland supported Saudi Arabia.

In a tweet, he said Independents4Change had put the matter up for Topical Discussion in the Dáil.

Dublin Workers' Party Councillor Éilis Ryan said the Government's refusal to reveal how Ireland voted can only be taken as a tacit admission that the Irish representative voted for the Saudi delegate.

"There is no justification for silence from the Government on this matter," she said, adding: "There is no security implication, and no economic or other excuse can be acceptable. Either the Dáil or the court of public opinion must extract the truth from the Government."

In the Dáil this afternoon, Labour leader Brendan Howlin asked the Tánaiste to reveal how the Government voted.

However, Frances Fitzgerald refused, saying it is the practice that countries do not disclose their UN votes.

"That is the approach that has generally been taken. This is the procedure that has been adopted in the UN" she said.

The controversial vote last month has already resulted in Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel making a public apology for supporting the Saudis.

According to the UN, the Commission on the Status of Women is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Last month, Saudi Arabia successfully campaigned for a seat on the commission, securing 47 votes, at least five of which are said to have come from European countries.

The outcome caused a storm of controversy, with Human Rights Watch stating bluntly that Saudi Arabia's election is an "affront to the mission of the commission itself, and a rebuke to Saudi women".

When it was revealed that Belgium supported Saudi Arabia, Mr Michel expressed regret in parliament and declared Belgium would vote differently if the ballot could be held again.

Geneva-based advocacy group UN Watch has described Saudi Arabia's election to the commission as "morally reprehensible" and raised questions as to whether Ireland was another European country which gave it support.