Budget 2013 has been widely criticized as an attack on women. It follows on from – and indeed is only comprehensible in the context of – the ‘tardiness and utter lack of urgency’ shown by Ireland’s political society to deal with the fallout of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death. But in an odd way, the Budget seems to map onto another (peculiarly) gendered issue right now: the debate about how TDs Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and Mick Wallace dress.

Apparently, the conventional and appropriate way for men to dress in the Dáil is to wear a jacket, a tailored shirt with a collar, and perhaps even a tie. Only men with such an appearance will ‘respect the dignity’ of Leinster House; other attire, such as denim jeans, is simply not good enough. That some of the new TDs do not appear dressed in such a dignified (read: honourable, upstanding, proper, manly) way is therefore cause for alarm.

I think it’s an obvious point to make here, but it’s nevertheless worth noting, that a dress code is a spatial technology, one that marks out a territory by excluding those who don’t (or won’t) adhere to it, and indicates how those who want to come in should appear when they are within that particular space. As a code, it sends a message that should be interpreted by potential entrants. It says, ‘We are here and we belong here and if you want to enter then abide by our norms.’

It should go without saying that such dress codes have no place in a democratic forum because of this explicitly exclusionary purpose. A democracy should be inclusive because, as Iris M. Young (2000) noted, ‘Inclusion increases the chances that those who make proposals will transform their positions from an initial self-regarding stance to a more objective appeal to justice, because they must listen to others with differing positions to whom they are also answerable’ (p.52). The focus here is on listening, not seeing. It is about communicating, persuasion, explaining why a wrong exists and how a remedy might correct it. By pursuing and then agreeing upon a particular dress code, a democratic forum such as the Dáil burdens representatives with unnecessary concerns that limit their scope to pursue ambitions in a manner that suits them. Appearances should not matter. On this principle alone, then, attempts to introduce a particular dress code are anti-democratic (and should be opposed).

What also needs to be said here, however, is that, in trying to enact rules about how public representatives should appear in our most important political forum, the men who seek to dominate the Dáil’s culture regarding attire are staking a claim over the democratic process as a whole. They are saying to the abstract citizen, ‘this is our space and we want it to stay the same’. After all, a dress code is intended to re-produce a space according to the wishes of those who already belong. It says to the potential entrant, ‘this space is stable and enduring: you have no right to unsettle or change it.’

Given the building up of pressure outside Leinster House to see it reformed, to see its practices change, it is by no means coincidental that such a debate is occurring right now. The very stability and enduring power that people like Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett believe they deserve is under threat. There is, for example, the election of TDs who challenge the dress code; an emerging debate about the need for a new republic; the Troika’s undermining of Leinster House; and public exhaustion with an austerity programme that often seems to have been implemented with too much enthusiasm. But there’s another threat out there: it’s the call from women such as Clara Fischer to be ‘included as authoritative knowers in discussions concerning us’ and the much broader pressure on our male representatives to take seriously the needs of women, especially during this crisis, but also generally.

Thus, against the backdrop of forces looking to undermine the stability of the Dáil’s culture and the power of its most influential players to shape its ways of being, it seems that one form of the backlash is to tighten up some of its rules in the hope that that very stability can be re-produced. In this sense, the dress code debate is intended to remind the citizen that dominant representatives in the Dáil are intent on retaining their territorial power over that chamber. They are saying: ‘By all means exert pressure on us to reform – even elect new TDs who you think will achieve that – but beware our tenacious capacity to survive just as we are and have been.’ Although concerning a seemingly mundane issue of men wearing jeans or collared shirts, it seems to me that this debate speaks volumes about the extent to which we can expect to see real change in Ireland so long as the current political class remains in place.

Alistair Fraser

 

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