Outrage not morally grounded


I agree with the Minister for Justice that his decision last week to readmit a deported Nigerian student was correct. I believe also it was taken for questionable reasons, writes John Waters.

McDowell had for several days insisted that the deportation of Olukunle Elukanlo was correct, but reversed the decision following public pressure. That he had the grace not to claim that his U-turn was made on grounds of "compassion" or "humanitarianism" is to his credit.

"I did this," he said, "because, having looked at the situation afresh, I came to the conclusion that it was a little bit harsh as a decision in the way that it fell out. I think if I had had a second chance to think about the matter, I would have given him enough time to finish his Leaving Cert. I could have done that and I should have done that. I have decided, therefore, that the best thing to do in the circumstances is to stop digging and to do the right thing and to let him come back."

The key words here are "the way that it fell out" and "stop digging", which indicate that the Minister was thinking less of the merits of his decision than of how this had "played" in the public arena. Indeed, for several days after the deportation, McDowell had been his usual supercilious self, doggedly reiterating that if he were to allow people stay here "just because they or a member of their family are in education", he would send out the wrong signals. He repeated this argument after his U-turn, emphasising that the Elukanlo decision was "not a precedent" but a "decision that rotates on its own facts".

McDowell's decision to decommission his spade, then, was not an admission that the deportation had been wrong in principle, but a pragmatic response to public outrage. Unfortunately, this outrage was not morally grounded.

Olukunle Elukanlo made for a good victim. Early reports suggested he was under age and had no family in Nigeria. These factors, and the fact that he was just three months from his exam, created considerable public sentiment in his favour. His fellow students at Palmerstown Community School fought a good war, bringing their protest to the gates of Dáil Éireann and on to the front pages of the newspapers.

We may like to imagine that the Minister's U-turn occurred in response to people power arising from public "compassion", but this places us in a more gracing perspective that we deserve. Anyone who would understand what has occurred in the Elukanlo story would do well to read the chapter by Mark Steyn in the excellent 1998 volume Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society. Steyn's contribution, "All Venusians now", identifies a major cultural shift undertaken by media in recent decades, where the "human interest story" has supplanted social analysis as the engine of public narrative. This journalism requires us not to think about the moral complexities of issues but to feel about their sentimentalised particulars.

What really happened last week was that the Minister for Justice responded to emotional blackmail to reverse a decision fully in accordance with both public policy and the implicit wishes of the public. Last year's referendum showed that the electorate favours a restrictive approach to asylum seekers.

The Elukanlo episode suggests we want the bullfight and the bull home. While the public luxuriates in a collective demonstration of compassion, the system grinds on. Since 1999 some 2,000 people have been deported, with numbers increasing sharply in the past two years. In the same period similar numbers were "voluntarily repatriated".

Without doubt, most of these people will have regarded their treatment as unfair. Many, too, will have been able to point to extenuating circumstances that might be deemed as important as completing the Leaving Cert. But because they were unable to invoke the mechanisms of public sentiment, their deportations went unnoticed.

Most deportations occur quietly, which is how we like it. The purpose of deportation - to send a signal that Ireland is not a "soft touch" - likewise obtains tacit public approval. Last year there were 4,265 new asylum applications and 501 reapplications, a 40 per cent drop on the previous year. In 2004 also 1,132 people were recognised as refugees. The remainder are liable to deportation.

And, as we look the other way, this increasingly hardline policy is showing fruit. Annual asylum applications increased sharply from the mid-1990s, peaked at 11,634 in 2002 and are now falling as dramatically as they rose. Nigerians have consistently represented the largest single contingent, amounting to roughly a quarter of the total. Since Nigeria has recently been deemed "safe", Nigerians will henceforth be turned away at the point of attempted entry, so applications will fall even more rapidly from now on. In a short time, the problem will have gone away, leaving us with a relatively unchanged society and a nice warm sense of our "compassion". Another Irish solution.