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Dublin: 6 °C Wednesday 16 April, 2014

Column: Ireland’s political system must embrace diversity to foster justice

Paying attention to multiple, often mutually reinforcing disadvantages, can help us understand injustices committed against marginalised members of our society, writes Clara Fischer.

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RECENT EVENTS HAVE highlighted the inability of a largely monolithic and unrepresentative legislature to take decisions that are in the interest of people who are other than them. The overwhelmingly white, male Dáil, with its members predominantly selected from a narrow spectrum of dynastic families and professions, has proven itself to be incapable of acting justly toward all those historically excluded and marginalised. We have witnessed spectacular political blunders and injustices, for instance, in the handling of the Savita Halappanavar death and subsequent establishment of inquiries; in the refusal to introduce abortion legislation as mandated by the Irish people; in the treatment of Magdalene survivors; and in economic policy measures disproportionately disadvantaging women.

While individual representatives sometimes try to constructively deal with issues predominantly affecting women, it is doubtful whether political institutions so explicitly eschewing diversity can adequately deal with such issues. Thankfully, as research from other jurisdictions shows, we can be hopeful that this may change somewhat in the future, given the introduction of gender quotas at the next general election.

‘We accept systemic poverty in our society’

What of those marginalised groups, though, who have been historically disadvantaged owing to other factors, such as race, ethnicity, or class? Incidences of racial hate crimes are rarely treated as a political priority, and we accept, as a matter of course, systemic economic inequality and poverty in our society. Added to this is the fact that people often have complex identities, which means they may be subject to multiple, perhaps reinforcing, disadvantages. The sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, describes such people as being subject to “interlocking systems of oppression”, as their lives are marked by “intersectionality”, that is, they are disadvantaged by virtue of their gender, race, and class, for instance.

Examples of the negative impact of intersectionality and mutually reinforcing oppressive structures are easy to find in Ireland. The issue of abortion, for example, is instructive. Many women who need abortions are unable to travel to the UK due to immigration or asylum status, meaning that race/ethnicity and gender intersect in ways that distinctly disadvantage migrant women, ultimately resulting in a denial of their reproductive rights. Similarly, there is ample evidence to suggest that people who were placed in Magdalene institutions were put there because they were poor. The ideology of ‘fallen women’, coupled with a disdain for poor people, thus resulted in women, and in some instances girls, being incarcerated by virtue of their gender and their class.

A homogenous legislature has not served us well

When understood like this, it becomes clear that intersectionality can be a powerful tool in drawing out the complexities involved in injustices committed against people who have been and continue to be marginalised. It is essential that political decisions are made with regard to such complexities. What better way to do so than by actually including those people in political decision-making, whose lived experience is intersectional, and who therefore have first-hand knowledge of the many ways in which disadvantage functions with regard to gender, race, or class, for instance?

As the examples of abortion and the containment of women in Magdalene laundries highlight, a homogenous legislature has not served us well, given that we are living with the legacies of injustices committed for several decades. If we wish to not repeat the mistakes of the past, then we need to include historically marginalised populations in political decision-making, paying particular attention to intersectionality, and the specific inequalities and injustices that can arise there from. As a country coming to terms with widespread, systemic injustices committed against young people, women, working class people, and the various intersectional identities of these and many others, we must ensure that diversity takes centre-stage in the political institutions and processes governing our lives.

Prof Patricia Hill Collins will be speaking on intersectionality and social justice in a public lecture organised by UCD Women’s Studies on 20 March. Dr Clara Fischer is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network.

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