On Privilege

The committee on the eighth amendment, dealing with the (very unexpected, I suspect) recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Ireland’s constitutional guarantee to ensure only those who travel can access abortion, rolls on towards its conclusion in the next week or so. Many of its members have clearly gone on a journey during this process, and hearts and minds have been changed. Most have engaged in a thoughtful, open-minded way, with three notable exceptions.

The committee chairperson, Senator Catherine Noone, has done sterling work and seeing her in action is a reminder to me of just how little I would want to be a politician. I ma far too hot headed and reactionary to ever be as patient as she has been. I’m glad to see the work of other female politicians being recognised too.

Senator Noone reads out a paragraph or two at the start of every meeting, as happens in every other Oireachtas committee meeting, reminding all those present, members and witnesses alike, of their privilege. Politicians speaking have absolute privilege when speaking to either House of the Oireachtas or to a committee convened by the Houses.

Privilege is something that I was reminded of again and again when I watched proceedings and followed updates on Twitter. The privilege of seeing parliamentary processes in action. The privilege of having political representatives who want to engage with the process. The privilege of being a woman of means who can travel for medical care abroad. The privilege of hearing all the arguments play out in public and people slowly coming to the realisation of the horror this amendment has perpetuated.

Privilege comes in many forms. The three men who didn’t want to engage with the process, tried to frustrate the process and didn’t ever intend to change their minds are privileged. They are white. They are Catholic, in a country whose parliament starts every day with a Catholic prayer. They are men. They are Irish. They have never had to weigh up their options on seeing a positive pregnancy test.

They have a very special privilege that many of us will never have. When they speak in the committee, they are absolutely privileged. This means they can say what they like. They can manipulate statistics. They can lie. They can make accusations. They did so, again and again and again. I recognise the importance of privilege in a parliamentary debate, and the importance of the checks and balances of our republic. But seeing three privileged men exercise absolute privilege in defence of a law that kills women is difficult to take.

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On Privilege