- A version of this article has been published on Human Rights in Ireland.
This question is relevant including and beyond issues of sexism and exclusion of women from positions of power and influence. Yesterday, it emerged (not for the first time), that election canvassers are prohibited from canvassing at direct provision centres in Ireland.
There are approximately 4,360 asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking residing in direct provision accommodation in Ireland. Every adult among them has the right to vote in local elections.
If candidates for political election are impeded in canvassing the views of some of their constituents, then what becomes of those views? And how can the eventually elected politicians properly represent members of society in their constituencies?
“Politically neutral zones”
The reasons for the ban remain unclear. Yesterday, a variety of statements, reasons and rationales circulated on Twitter, emanated from various offices, and were expressed in official statements.
On the one hand, it appeared that the Principal Officer at the Reception and Integration Agency, Mr Noel Dowling, has a policy that no canvassing is permitted for any political parties, that election canvassing had never been permitted, that this policy had always been in place, and that policy follows Departmental policy (of the Department of Justice and Equality). On the other hand, TheJournal.ie was told by the Department of Justice and Equality that direct provision centres are a “politically neutral environment.” According to a Department spokesperson:
[I]n the same way that Public Service offices operate in a politically neutral environment, so also must accommodation centres be free from any party political associations.
There are immediately apparent ironies and absurdities to this purported policy. Not least is there the irony that refugees seeking asylum on the grounds of political opinion find themselves housed in “politically neutral environments” imposed by the state. Not least, too, is it absurd to seek to draw a comparison between the employment settings of public servants with direct provision centres where refugees and survivors of trafficking are required by the state to reside.
Most disturbing, perhaps, is the imposition of “political neutrality,” which itself is a deeply political act.
Politics, power and exclusion
If politics is conceived as a zero-sum competition for power, then this step by a state agency can be regarded as the yet another exercise of power over an already almost totally disempowered group in Irish society. The near-total exclusion of asylum seekers from participating in the society where they live is highly questionable. (Survivors of human trafficking who are identified as such by the relevant Garda authorities in Ireland may be given temporary permission(s) to engage in employment, subject to conditions including assisting the state as witness in criminal proceedings.)
This exclusion is achieved through placing asylum seekers entirely outside certain laws and structures in Ireland. Article 40.6 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) provides for the right to freedom of expression, as does Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The direct provision system is established without any statutory basis. Ireland has opted out of the EU’s minimum legal standards for the accommodation of asylum seekers and the EU’s minimum standards relating to refugee status decisions. The effects of these approaches include: harm to mental health such as depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation among residents in direct provision centres; deeply flawed decision-making and appeals procedures, leading to protracted legal processes seeking redress for refugee applicants. Such is the extent of control exerted over the lives of residents in direct provision, simple decisions around eating food is removed: the choice of what to eat and when is decided by a private company operating under contract to the state.
Now, we see another example of this near-total exclusion of asylum seekers beyond the state. Notwithstanding the fact that asylum seekers are entitled by law to vote in local elections – like any adult residing in Ireland – a questionable “policy” seeks to erode their ability to exercise their right to vote, and by extension their right to participate in the democratic process in Ireland.
What cost to Irish society?
By denying election candidates the opportunity to canvass the views of certain constituents, this “policy” impedes the opportunity for candidates to hear the views of asylum seekers and others – to hear their minds and voices. In turn, the “policy” hampers the ability of voters in direct provision centres to be fully informed about their rights and obligations, and to contribute to and influence the local politics – which by law they are entitled to do.
If voices are silenced and bodies remain invisible, what does this mean for the ideas and leadership which shape Irish society?
These are issues which must be addressed at local, national and EU level.
Interfering with the right of certain voters to participate in democratic process silences their voices and further renders them invisible to those who have the power to influence local politics and decision-making. The new Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD, has the opportunity to abolish the direct provision system, and to implement the minimum legal standards agreed at EU level. She and her colleagues in Europe have the chance to ensure a fair balance between the obligations and rights of member states: in relation to their duties under the Geneva Conventions and under human rights law, and in relation to their entitlements regarding borders, immigration and refugee status determination procedures.