Who are we to lecture people of Mauritius about justice?

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

Natural sympathy for McAreavey has morphed into indulgent hostility towards a small nation, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

YOU’D NEED a heart of stone not to feel for the family of Michaela McAreavey. They have behaved with admirable restraint under the most distressing of circumstances. Although “inconsolable”, and understandably so, they have maintained their silent dignity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a substantial section of the public, who have been vociferous, and increasingly indiscriminate, in their outrage.

What started out as a reasonable expression of sympathy and solidarity with the bereaved families has now become open season on the entire island of Mauritius and its people.

Calls to “boycott Mauritius”, in the wake of the trial and the subsequent publication of leaked photographs of the dead woman’s body, have become more strident and inflammatory with every passing day.

As ever, in such cases of mass hysteria – because that is what this is – reason flies out the window and febrile emotion takes charge.

Travel agents refuse to sell holidays to the island and social media is awash with hostility, with numerous people characterising the place as “medieval and barbaric”, a “backward country” with a “biased and corrupt judicial system and government”.

By implication, we – the decent, upstanding Irish people – are cast as the unimpeachable guarantors of justice and the rule of law, and the Mauritians as incompetent savages, or worse.

There is no doubt that the Mauritian authorities have serious questions to answer about the police investigation into this case and the tactics used.

Amnesty International has long-standing concerns about allegations of torture and ill-treatment of suspects by Mauritian police. As for the publication of the crime scene images, all the revulsion is quite justified – as long as it remains directed at the offending scandal rag in question, or at whoever leaked the photographs in the first place. We have a problem when it starts spilling over into wild generalisations, scattergun xenophobia and crude cultural stereotyping.

That’s a dangerous road to start along and it ends in a dark and self-diminishing place.

The story of Michaela’s life and her terrible death has a powerful visceral impact, tapping into ancient currents of fear and desire.

There is an almost mythic quality to the story: a ghastly, twisted fairytale. No wonder it reawakens the old ties of nationhood, tightens the loosened bonds of family.

We are an emotional people, with a strong streak of sentimentality, and this feels personal.

Michaela was one of our own, and there is a half-formed urge to avenge the dishonour done to her, which finds a contemporary outlet in anonymous online rant.

What’s worse, though, is that it also reactivates far less admissible impulses – all the ugly, long-buried prejudices about otherness, the insular suspicion of foreign people with strange-sounding names.

Despite the luxury resorts, the shimmering ocean and the gently swaying palm trees, Mauritius is clearly not paradise. Of course, we knew this already; we just chose not to look too closely.

As so often happens in our dealings with countries in the developing world, our comfort is predicated on their misery. Western tourists stretch out in the sun and sip their mango lassis, heedless of the deprivation and poverty just around the corner. They know nothing of the local man who deferentially serves them their drinks, and care less.

There is a lingering idea among Irish people that, because of our own past sufferings, we have a particularly sensitive moral antenna, highly attuned to instances of injustice and exploitation.

That does not always bear out in reality. Perhaps we’re just more hypocritical: witness the Irish red carpet for red China, rolled out earlier this year. Tiananmen Square?

Is that a Nama development?

The other striking aspect of the McAreavey trial and publication of the offending photographs is the determinedly bullish attitude taken towards the Mauritians by the Government, and by Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers.

Of course, we are all shocked, all disgusted.

But there is also the sense that, with Mauritius, there is finally a state with which Ireland, North and South, can throw its weight around.

Ministers appear to have drawn confidence from the wave of high public feeling in taking this small island state sternly to task.

The question is whether we have accrued enough moral capital of our own to be able to do that with sufficient authority. There have been times on our own island when the guilty have gone free.

On the day that she was killed, Michaela McAreavey went to her room to get a packet of biscuits to have with her cup of tea: a small act of reassuring homeliness in an exotic setting far away from home.

Somehow, that makes the horror and cruelty of her death all the more stark.

But this is not our loss. Michaela did not belong to us, but to her loving family. We indulge ourselves, and diminish her memory, by such an extravagant expression of grief.

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