Irish envoy who’s engineered major milestones in Kenya

Dr Vincent O’Neill, is the first resident Irish Ambassador in Kenya in 26 years. [Courtesy]

In March 2014, Ireland reopened its Embassy in Kenya after a 26-year absence, following its closure in 1988 due to economic reasons.

The man tasked with the reopening, was Dr Vincent O’Neill, a medical professional who has worked in Africa for over 25 years, in countries such as Malawi, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

The year when Dr O’Neill came to reopen the embassy, was not the best of times for such a task.

“It was just 12 months after the Westgate terror attack and just before the Garissa attack, when the country was consumed with the need to protect itself against threat of further terrorist attacks. At the time also, the situation between Kenya and the international community was volatile because of the ICC cases,” he says.

But rolling he got down to work, and after four years and with his imminent departure, he is happy that he is leaving a fully functional embassy.

Kenya opened an embassy in Ireland in 2007. Catherine Mwangi was the first ambassador and she was succeeded by Richard Opembe in 2015. There are over 2,000 Kenyans who live in Ireland presently.

Consular services

In his first ambassadorial job, he has overseen five ministerial visits from Ireland to Kenya. In October this year, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives Peter Munya visited Ireland where he signed a bilateral trade agreement.

“Now, we have a fully functional embassy, we offer consular services to the over 1,000 Irish citizens as well as Kenyans who travel to Ireland for business,” says Dr O’Neill.

Trade between Kenya and Ireland stands at over € 150 million and has grown by over 20 per cent each year over the past three years. This was made possible by the work of Business Ireland Kenya(BIK) and other deals that the Embassy has struck with the Kenyan governments and other lobby groups.

“About six Kenyan delegations have visited Ireland over the past three years to look for opportunities especially in Agri-Business,” says Dr O’Neill.

At the request of President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Irish Embassy has helped Kenyan farmers in dairy farming, fisheries and especially potato farming in Nyandarua.

“Two weeks ago I met a young female farmer in Nyandarua County with an acre of land. She used to harvest 20 tonnes of Irish potatoes, but through the high-yielding potato seed made available through our partnership, she has quadrupled her harvest to 80 tonnes, in just six months.”

The Irish Embassy was also instrumental in supporting the organisation of the recent successful Blue Economy Conference, which Dr O’Neill commends Kenya for her efficiency.

Also, at the request of President Kenyatta, the Irish Embassy has been advising Kenya on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), Ireland being the most successful country in Europe to attract FDI.

They have encouraged and supported the efforts of Kenya Investment Authority, a one-stop shop where foreign investors can obtain permits and requisite certification to start a business in the country.

And perhaps the most successful initiative of the Embassy was the launch of Young Scientist Kenya (YSK), a platform whose patron is President Kenyatta.

YSK gives secondary school students an opportunity to demonstrate their innovation and showcase their scientific talents in Science, Technology and Mathematics. It is modelled on the British Telecom Young Scientists and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) in Ireland and the local Kenya Science and Engineering Fair. It has designated Kenya’s premier inter-schools national competition in STEM.

Kenya enjoys historical ties with Ireland stretching as far back as 100 years.

In December 2016, there was an exhibition to mark Ireland’s 100 years in Kenya. The exhibition is now archived at the National Museum of Kenya.

In 2014, the United Nations tasked Kenya and Ireland to co-chair the discussions on a new Post 2015-agenda for Development in the United Nations in New York. The new strategy replaced Millennium Goals and in their place Sustainable Development Goals.

His stay has not been without challenges. “Corruption and abuse of office are a big problem as they take opportunities away from the people. But I like the commitment that is being demonstrated by President Kenyatta and from key institutions such as the office of Director of Public Prosecutions. I hope that we will see more prosecutions and confiscation of property from convicted corrupt individuals,” he says. 

Dr O’Neill will go to Jordan early next year where he will be tasked with setting up another Embassy of Ireland.

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