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Ireland could become ‘gold standard’ on inclusion
Aoife McNickle BL and Leon Diop

28 Jan 2022 / people Print

Ireland could reach ‘gold standard’ on inclusion

Ireland, as a young multicultural society without legacy challenges, has a unique opportunity to “get things right”, a Bar Council symposium entitled ‘Understanding Race Inclusion in the Legal Profession’ has heard. 

Since 18% of the Irish population is from a migrant background, Sandra Healy (Inclusio) said that inclusion was everybody’s responsibility, and involved being respectfully curious about human difference.

Leon Diop, of awareness group Black and Irish, said that Ireland had the opportunity to shape its own language, and could be a global leader in terminology for people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

Diop said that he had previously described himself as ‘half-caste’, but that term removed him from his Irish identity.

“Language is incredibly powerful,” he said, differentiating between its intent and its impact. 

“What you intend to say might not be how it is perceived by the other person,” he said.

Asking what term was most appropriate in describing an ethnic-minority person could eliminate weeks of anguish, he said. 

“Allow yourself to be uncomfortable and to ask questions that you might not normally ask,” he suggested.

Avoidance 

In the legal profession there may be an expectation of “knowing everything”, the symposium heard, which could lead to ‘avoidance’, rather than asking open questions. 

British barrister Simon Regis said that talking about race could be uncomfortable for both parties.

While collecting data on participation was important, he added that actually doing something about rates of attrition in the legal profession was a different matter. 

“The reality of it is that the culture at the Bar of England and Wales isn't that equal, in any way, shape, or form.

“Ireland has a good opportunity to look at what's happened in other jurisdictions and cherry pick best practice,” he added. 

“Ireland could become the gold standard,” he stated.

“If I can use a fairly pejorative term, you don't have the shackles that other jurisdictions will have in this particular space,” he said. 

Sandra Healy said that if an under-represented population group was less than 30% of any organisation, it would be nearly impossible to breakthrough ‘groupthink’.

“You have to consciously make an effort, from a cultural perspective, to make sure that everybody can contribute to decision-making,” she said.

Without an inclusive environment, there would be a revolving door, she said, warning against ‘diversity theatre’.

Building diversity and inclusion should not be a burden that those from minority backgrounds are left to carry, the symposium heard (26 January).

Gatekeepers to profession

Simon Regis added that it was important for unsuccessful applicants to the Bar to get feedback, from those who are gatekeepers to the legal profession.

Action plans, and a carrot-and-stick approach, were key, he said.

Aoife McNickle BL said that tenders for legal counsel could be “looked at” to ensure they were not weighted against those from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

The Bar of Ireland needed to talk to the Law Society, in terms of educating solicitors to be aware of and conscious of, briefing a more diverse range of counsel, McNickle said.

The representative organisations should collect data profiles, not just on race and ethnicity, but on neurodiversity, disability, and socio-economic and educational background, using software tools to build their diversity profile, Healy said.

“Baseline data is really important,” she said.

“It’s not enough to not be racist, you need to be anti-racist,” Sandra Healy claimed.

'Fishbowl of privilege'

“Part of that is removing yourself from a nice comfortable fishbowl of privilege,” she stated.

Personal bias is coded from an early age, and needed to be deconstructed, she added.

However, Leon Diop said that conversations about race should start from the position that everyone was on the same side, and not with an attitude of confrontation.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland