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Opinion: 'I won't wear ceremonial robes in council as they are a symbolic barrier to participation'

The robes make it harder for the average person to see themselves as a public representative, writes Galway City Councillor, Owen Hanley.

Owen Hanley Galway City Councillor

FOR THE PAST seven months I have sat in the Galway City Council chambers, watching from the sidelines as councillors discussed the matters of the day.

So I was fairly familiar with the place when I came to it for my first day as a councillor last Friday, 8 June.

Despite being described as ‘wet behind the ears’, I knew what I was there to say and I said it.

I attracted a bit of attention because I chose not to wear the ceremonial robes that are traditionally worn at the election of the mayor and a few other events during the year.

In 2014, Sinn Féin councillors also refused to wear the robes but they had not succeeded in being re-elected, so on the day, I was the only one of the 18 newly elected councillors who didn’t wear them. 

“I firmly believe that the robes reflect a symbolic barrier to participation and make it harder for the average person to see themselves in the role.

It was also a personal choice I made because I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in them. I didn’t even go to my graduation for my degree because that sort of ceremony just never felt natural to me.

“I grew up with bowl haircuts and hand-me-down confirmation clothes. Those robes were just not a fit for me.”

Even during the hardest days of my campaign, when I felt my chances of winning were low, what kept me going was that I knew, win or lose, that I was paving the way for others like me who maybe didn’t fit the traditional mould. 

Now that I’m an elected public representative I want every young person, whatever their background, including those who grew up in social housing estates in the city, to be able to look at me and maybe start to imagine themselves in the chamber.

Shaking off the robes can only help that. 

My dad was a plumber like his dad before him, as was my great-grandfather too. They didn’t wear suits to work but they worked hard every day.

Some people have suggested that not wearing the robes is a sign of disrespect to the office and that they are a symbol of equality amongst the councillors.

But I just don’t see it that way.

I don’t begrudge anyone for wearing them and it is certainly a great honour to be a public representative – but to me, the robes are a symbol of an old system, where commoners were ruled by elites.

People are disillusioned with politics in Ireland. They don’t trust their representatives and often don’t think they’re fit to do their job. Many also believe that the system itself is broken and that politicians are out-of-touch.

Politics needs to be about people first. We need to involve all members of society in a discussion about where our country is going.

Unfortunately, instead, voter turnout rates are dropping every year and it seems it’s fashionable to be cynical.

The longer that our democracy huddles around the worn-out comforts of the 20th century, the longer it fails to face the hard truths of now.

21st-century democracy must evolve and re-establish its mandate as a true reflection of how people feel and think about our society.

These statements might appear to some to be ‘stretching it’ over a set of robes but I feel there’s a section of politics that has become overly concerned with appearances. 

And I agree that there are much more important things than what a councillor wears.

Galway City Council, like every council, faces monumental challenges over the next five years.

The homelessness and housing crisis requires an urgent and compassionate response that means large-scale mobilisation by the state to build social and affordable homes consistently.

Transport solutions should offer people an alternative to cars and make more efficient use of our medieval streets – a real public transport system could reduce the traffic that currently chokes our estates.

We desperately need healthcare reform to allow for universal access to healthcare and to end chronic shortages and close the gap between public and private care.

Climate action must happen on a national and local level as we move towards a sustainable economy that is responsible in terms of land, sea, and air.

Improving the quality of life for the residents of our city should be paramount in every political decision. 

I expect all public representatives to be judged on how they tackle those key issues, myself included.

Of course, issues like the housing crisis, health and climate change are far more important than whether or not a councillor wears the robes. 

At 23, Owen Hanley is the youngest ever councillor on Galway City Council and is also the first Social Democrat councillor elected to the local authority. 

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About the author:

Owen Hanley  / Galway City Councillor

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