Finally the dust has settled on the long and at times exhausting political chess game that was government formation. The last seats at the decision making table have been assigned and as TDs begin their six week summer holiday I would like to take a moment to glance at the composition of people at the governing table.
The ability to achieve our collective and personal goals depends on who is sitting there. It more so depends on who is missing. And who is overwhelmingly missing from the picture?
The answer is migrants.
The lack of ethnic diversity amongst our political leaders at all levels is not only an issue of non-representation and democratic deficit, it’s also an issue of neither having agency nor equality of participation.
Who Has a Voice?
The staggering imbalance of representation at the decision making table was illustrated to the public at the 17th June Dáil discussion on racism in Ireland.
Many TDs spoke on that day offering testimonies of solidarity.
But the dynamics of the discussion ironically further perpetuated the system of racial marginalisation of migrants, due to the lack of Black people and ethnic minority people involved in that discussion, meaning the agency of those directly affected by racism and discrimination was removed.
What we saw instead was an overwhelmingly male, definitely pale, and in most cases stale chamber of politicians discussing an issue that they had no direct experience of.
As Zrinka Bralo, a Bosnian refugee woman and CEO of Migrant Organise, an organising platform for migrants and refugees acting for justice based in London, once said to me, “If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu”.
Equality of participation and fair democratic representation can only be achieved by having diversity at the political table. This is an issue of urgency. Not only due to the recent discussion initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to the 2016 Census one in eight (12 percent) of Irish society are people of migrant backgrounds. This means there is a substantial section of the Irish population that are left out from having an active say in decisions about the future of this country.
If we were to achieve fair proportional democratic representation we should have 114 local councillors of a migrant background, but currently we have 10. We should have 19 TDs, we have one. Leo Varadkar, as a son of a migrant, qualifies but by examining his political record we can hardly count him as a champion of migrant rights. As for Seanad Éireann, if calculated by size of the migrant population we should have seven senators but we have none.
Words of Solidarity
The discussion about diversity in leadership isn’t new. It was initiated by migrant leaders and migrant organisations a long time ago. Dr Fidèle Mutwarasibo both former Integration Manager at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, and a Human Rights and Equality Commissioner, Barnaba Dorda the Chair of Forum Polonia ( a Polish umbrella organisation), and Salome Mbugua Henry founder of migrant women network AkiDwA, who ran for Seanad Éireann in 2020 are just few key names to mention.
In the last decade a number of campaigns and projects were introduced to address the lack of political representation for migrants. Crosscare Migrant Project introduced the Opening Power to Diversity internship scheme for migrants in the Dáil in 2012. An alliance of eight migrant organisations brought together over 100 migrant leaders in 2018 to discuss diversity in politics.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland has been running various voters education and registration projects since 2011. However, it was not until two years ago when this discussion was picked up also by elected politicians and state departments.
In 2018 the then Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform, Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan, indicated that the government may introduce quotas for candidates of a migrant background. Although this proposal has not progressed any further, the suggestion of quotas is an interesting idea, but it isn’t the most promising one.
As we know from the experience of gender quotas, women are still not winning elections at a comparable rate to male candidates. And that is not for the lack of highly qualified and capable female candidates. Quotas do not remove barriers specific to minorities, they just enable members of minority groups to reach the starting point.
This year, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin amplified the calls of migrant organisations for the appointment of a minority senator, to give a voice and representation to minority communities at the state level. All three parties forming the government coalition appointed Eileen Flynn the first Traveller woman to the Seanad Éireann. A great testimony to her outstanding work and activism, and a great recognition to the Traveller community. Migrant communities however did not enjoy the same recognition, and remained invisible to political leaders of this country.
As much as it is welcomed to see this development in a public debate, I am more interested in examining how these words of solidarity could have been transformed into acts of solidarity. Acts of solidarity that would address the structural barriers that are putting migrants at a significant disadvantage when running for an elected position: migrant candidates running in the last local elections reported racism to be the biggest barrier during their campaign.
In addition, small social support networks, limited resources, and lack of family support were identified as migrant specific barriers to implement a successful election campaign.
In the last 18 months there have been a number of opportunities to turn words into actions. We had the local elections, the by-elections, a general election, Seanad elections as well as Seanad nominations.
Party support for minority candidates dramatically increases their potential for successful election. All of the nine elected councillors of a migrant background were party nominees. However less than half of the 56 local election migrant candidates were party nominees.
Do you know how many migrants were co-opted to the local councils? One, and only after the first choice candidate was deemed ineligible. What we’ve seen instead was co-opting of family members as was the case in Co Wicklow when Green Party TD Steven Matthews’ council seat was co-opted by his wife, councillor Erika Doyle leaving some to call for a more transparent process of selection.
If your selection procedures keep migrants and other minority groups invisible, then it means your transparent processes have blind spots. If you cannot recognise that there are additional barriers for equal participation of migrants in democratic processes, then it means the transparency in your selection process makes those barriers invisible. If traditionally disadvantaged people are always overlooked during those rare opportunities then we need to reflect on the selection processes. Positive action makes us seen.
From Words to Action
Many words have been said about increasing diversity in leadership by people comfortably sitting at the decision making table.
But neither quotas, nor statements of solidarity will change the composition at the governing table, until there is deliberate action by political parties to disseminate the seats amongst migrants and other marginalised groups.
This however needs thinking outside of the box, giving voice to the under-represented, shifting traditional party choices. As long as political parties are not willing to make room for migrants at the decision making table, we can not talk about full democracy in Ireland.