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Column: Public inquiry system reflects power imbalance in Irish society

Women’s lives are not a priority in the public sphere – and this is clear from a series of inquiries, writes Margaret O’Keeffe.

IN IRELAND, THERE has been significant public disquiet regarding tribunals of inquiry. For example, the Mahon Tribunal was established in November 1997. Fifteen years later in 2012, the Mahon report was published. In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry was opened in November 2011. One year later, Lord Justice Leveson’s Report was published. This outcome stands in marked contrast with the Irish experience of public inquiries.

Savita Halappanavar

Following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, there were demands for a public inquiry, most notably from her husband Praveen. The Minister for Health, however, expressed his opposition to this demand. Certainly, public inquiries need to have a substantial concern with notions of fair play and justice, matters which will of necessity demand significant time. In Minister Reilly’s terms, however, why do such inquiries take so long and why are they so slow to yield satisfactory answers? A related question is: what issues are prioritised as matters of legitimate public business.

This point speaks to issues of unequal power and privilege in Irish society, for example, those whose voices and interests are most often heard in the public realm. Debates relating to what author, Anne Philips terms ‘The Politics of Presence’ are relevant here. Specifically, women’s lives and experiences often go unheard and may be trivialised or even ignored altogether. For example, the all-party Oireachtas report on abortion (2000) failed to include any personal evidence from the very women affected.

At that time, the committee defended this omission on the grounds that no women came forward.  This is a weak defence which negates the societal-imposed silence which often surrounds the topic of abortion, a silence which often renders women who have experienced abortion reluctant to speak in a public forum.

Public hearings

Over a decade later, the recent public hearings of the Oireachtas Committee on Health were similarly noteworthy for the absence of women who have had abortions. Furthermore, the often gendered nature of language, who speaks and who is heard, is reflective of the wider socio-cultural and economic power that political and religious elites have historically exercised in many areas of life.

The public inquiry system often reflects this power imbalance. There needs to be the political will to bring about a reconfigured system, appropriately nuanced and sensitised to generalised issues of power and privilege and specifically to the gender related right to speak and to be heard.

While the Republic of Ireland is a liberal democratic society which promises equality and freedom to all its citizens, there is one issue that could hamper this. As a principle of democracy, the composition of the Oireachtas and other elected bodies need to reflect population diversity. This is necessary to ensure that their decisions have legitimacy.  Currently, just 25 TDs, 15 per cent of the Dáil are women. This places Ireland in 89th position in a global league table for the percentage of women in parliament. As a member of the 5050 Group, I believe that the lack of priority given to women’s lives stems in part from this representational deficit.

Powerful institutions

Finally, the question needs to be asked as a Republic, is Ireland a state that can operate against private domination. If Ireland is truly a state that operates against private domination then it follows that unlike in the recent past, where women’s lives have been sacrificed to abstract principles by powerful institutions, let us hope that present and future generations may live in a more humane and tolerant society.

This vision of liberal democracy may in turn help to support a public inquiry system which is more attuned to advancing the needs of a culturally diverse society.  In time, this reimagined society may foster a public sphere where everyone, irrespective of their gender, class, sexual, religious or ethnic identity, is equally valued and respected in both the private and public domain.

Dr Margaret O’Keeffe works at Cork Institute of Technology and is the founder member of the 5050 Group.

Report: Medical records show Savita Halappanavar requested a termination>

€196 million: the estimated final cost for the Mahon Tribunal>

Column: ‘A wheel turning so slowly the hamster died’ – my day at the Mahon>

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