Michael McDowell’s climb-down on 19-year-old Nigerian student Olunkunle Eluhanla was no less than stunning. Following a robust defence of the position – quoting policy and immigration law on Morning Ireland on Tuesday morning – where he said that the decision was in the best interests of the Irish people, suggesting that a chaotic situation would emerge were this decision to be reversed. Now, he claims to be sorry, and that the decision was wrong, and a one-off, that would not set a precedent.
Perhaps this is our justice minister in microcosm – part lawyer, part politician. Legal certainty required the original deportation order; public opinion demanded the reverse. Yet McDowell would do well to decide which he is, and do it fast, or he will fall between the stools of politics and law.
In capitulating to public opinion, McDowell has undermined his key strength – a stubborn high-mindedness in doing what he thinks is right (or right-wing!) – and done little to assuage the concerns of those who believe that his strength is a bad thing. He is not comfortable in the u-turn, within which his Taoiseach revels. His lawyerly instinct detests instability, uncertainty, and unpredictability. The absolutism of his positions on asylum, law and order, and Sinn Féin paints McDowell into a tidy box where he is clearly identifiable. You either hate Michael McDowell, or you support him.
McDowell’s absolutism bleeds into the Progressive Democrat position, and clouds the relatively gentler and populist tones of Mary Harney. Her pro-business, all business style appeals to Irelands nouveau riche, the rising middle classes, and the post-trade union worker. It is a case of optimism triumphing over pessimism – trade unions were important, relevant and popular when people believed that they would be first on the redundancy list were there to be cut backs. Harney’s PD’s are supported by people who believe that they have a real chance of promotion when the next expansion is announced.
The Labour party, for whom McDowell is the pin-up nemesis (alongside Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams – whatever happened to the theory about one’s enemy’s enemy?) remain stuck in this time warp. The Celtic Tiger has moved on without them. Socialism and inclusiveness are now the objects of Ireland’s nouveau pauvre: the asylum seekers, migrant workers, refugees and people with disability and special needs. The trade unions are as much attached to Fianna Fail through partnership negotiations as they are to the Labour Party, yet those same Unions control the Labour Party’s constitution.
So a good week for Pat Rabbitte, a terrible week for Michael McDowell. Yet in the greater scheme of things, Bertie’s sitting back and smiling.