Questions over Government stance on Bahrain

The presence of the Irish Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at a graduation ceremony at the university on Monday, albeit in a private capacity, meanwhile, raises questions about the attitude of the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Kingdom, writes Ronan Delaney.

On Monday the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland - Medical University of Bahrain held a graduation ceremony for 196 students in the Gulf kingdom. Our ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Niall Holohan, attended the graduation ceremony alongside the Prime Minister of Bahrain, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the local Gulf Daily News reported. RCSI Bahrain awards degrees of MB BCh BAO from the National University of Ireland, who also award degrees to graduates of NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, UCC, UCD and NCAD. These RCSI Bahrain degree programmes cost as much US$37,135 a year to attend. Over five years this can amount to an investment nearing a quarter of a million dollars when inflation and living expenses are included.

Meanwhile, the kingdom's Al Khalifa royal family, who have been backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, are trying 48 surgeons, doctors, paramedics and nurses who had treated injured demonstrators cleared from Pearl Square in a crackdown by the kingdom's Sunni controlled authorities. They are being tried in a military court with attempting to topple the state. The authorities allege that the staff at the Salmaniya Medical Centre inflicted injuries on and delayed treatment of individuals they claim had been injured by demonstrators, an allegation at odds with much media coverage during the army's crackdown.Robert Fisk’s indignant report, published in Tuesday’s Independent can be read here. The Bahraini government are threatening Fisk with legal action for his reporting.

During the events the army used extraordinary violence against unarmed, mainly Shia pro-democracy protestors who had camped in Pearl Square, mimicking the Egyptian protestors of Tahrir Square. GCC troops stationed in neighbouring Saudi Arabia entered the kingdom to act as a backstop. Their subsequent prosecution of protestors has resulted in claims of torture, and in the case of the doctors facing charges at least one appears to face the death penalty. The Shia population constitute the majority of the Bahrainis, but Bahrain, effectively a client state of Saudi Arabia in many respects, is ruled by a Sunni elite and royal family who appear to have little interest in any real reform.

Amongst the charged are graduates of the RCSI who are bearers of Irish NUI degrees, some of whom are former employees of the Irish health system. Dr Ruarí Hanley of the Irish Medical Times has been drawing attention to the whole affair (read his column on the RCSI and IMO's silence here, and his letter to the Irish Times here), and successfully lobbied deputies in the Dáil to quiz Foreign Affairs Minister, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on the issue (Irish Medical Times report here).

While the Tánaiste's written reply makes a great show of concern it appears this has not stopped his civil servant, and representative of this country to Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Dr Niall Holohan from appearing alongside Prince Al Khalifa at the RCSI graduation ceremony in Bahrain. In the final sentence of the reply Minister Gilmore states "that the relationship between the RCSI and the Government of Bahrain would be very much a matter for those parties themselves." This statement is quite clearly at odds with the fact of Ambassador Holohan's presence in Bahrain in the company of that country's Prime Minister at an RCSI occasion.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in a reply to my enquiries on the matter have stated that Ambassador Holohan was present solely in a private capacity as he is, "not yet formally accredited to Bahrain and therefore does not have any official standing in Bahrain." They also make clear that Ambassador Holohan is seeking a meeting with the Bahraini Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the earliest possible opportunity to present the Tánaiste's comments and "to inform him of the deep concerns of the Irish Government and people in relation to recent events." The Department also states that Irish Government is fully committed to upholding all aspects of human rights and international law and will be conveying the Government's "clear stance" on the events in Bahrain "through our Embassy in Riyadh and all other appropriate channels."

It seems odd, nonetheless, that the Ambassador would have thought his personal presence appropriate given what is occurring in Bahrain and the Tánaiste's claim of disinterest in the dealings of the RCSI and the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The RCSI clearly have a commitment and duty to the students to whom they are currently providing an education in Bahrain and may be caught in a sticky situation they had not anticipated. Yet there exists also an economic interest in the form the very high fees charged for this education that trades on the fine reputation of the RCSI, and Irish medicine and medical instruction. That very reputation though might be in the process of being sullied somewhat by what's currently happening to RCSI graduates under the very noses of the RCSI and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Bahrain. The presence of the Prime Minister at the RCSI Bahrain graduation on Monday fails to send any signal that they are engaging in any meaningful way with the current travails of past students and colleagues.

In the extensive Irish Times report written by correspondent Jamie Smyth, the RCSI claim to not “comment publicly on a political situation, or individual cases” while also maintaining that any commercial interest is subordinate to their duty to their students and has not motivated any silence on their part.

Whether or not that is the case, the events in Bahrain are certain to give prospective students, such as this young woman in Singapore, pause for thought, given the high fees and potential political instability. It also raises serious questions about the RCSI's involvement in Bahrain, the attitude of the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Kingdom, and the NUI Senate's participation in awarding degrees in countries with atrocious human rights records and vindictive attitudes to NUI graduates doing their humane work.

Below, Bahrain security forces open fire on crowds as thousands of protesters stream towards Pearl Square in Manama.