Latest news from the Land of the Welcomes

Prime Time last night carried a report on EU citizens whose non-EU spouses are being threatened with deportation on the grounds that the couple did not live together in another EU state before moving to Ireland.

This is happening because of the government’s interpretation of a recent EU directive which, ironically, was intended to strengthen the family rights of EU citizens.

I have a friend who recently fell afoul of this law. David has been married to his wife (a citizen of one of the “old” EU states) for about eight years. They have lived in Ireland for most of that time, having previously lived in David’s native country. He entered the state legally, with his wife, and was granted residency as the spouse of an EU citizen. This permission had to be renewed annually, so every year, he and his wife would go to the Gardaí to verify that they were still married, and he would get a stamp for another year. He is now eligible for Irish citizenship and has filed an application, but the waiting list is very long and it could be 2009 before his application is approved.

So a couple months ago, when his stamp was due to expire, he and his wife went for what he had every reason to believe was just a formal appearance before the Gardaí for another year-long stamp. Except this time they wouldn’t give it to him. “The law has changed,” he was told, “and you no longer have any right to reside here.” Within a few short weeks he would become an illegal immigrant; his employer would be required by law to let him go, and a deportation order could issue at any time.

Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that for David. He has a few advantages that many others in his situation don’t have: his employer is fairly well connected, and David is a white, native English-speaking westerner (this isn’t supposed to make a difference, but I guarantee you that it does). In his case the authorities relented – at least for this year.

So why is the government all of a sudden deciding to make legal immigrants illegal? Their explanation is that they are cracking down on “sham marriages”. Right. And the only way a couple can prove that their marriage is not one of convenience is to demonstrate that they lived together in another EU country first? My arse.

What happened is this. The government’s solicitors are under instructions to scrutinise every immigration-related EU law in order to determine the most restrictive way it can be applied. In this case, the solicitors found that this new EU directive could be interpreted to say that family rights only had to be granted to couples that had previously lived in another EU state. That, of course, was never the EU’s intention, but no matter. The government saw a loophole and jumped through it like a circus horse. And then made up this nonsense that it was all about "sham marriages".

What angers me most about this is the utter disregard it shows for the human needs, let alone human rights, of the people affected. Not all of them will be deported, of course. With a little luck (and a cerebrally-functioning Supreme Court) maybe none of them will, apart from that small percentage who genuinely did marry for convenience. But they don’t know that. Try to imagine the fear that someone in this predicament must feel. Someone who has spent years in this country, entirely legally, playing by the rules, building a life here for themselves and their family. And then to have a threat like this dangled over their head.

It is a cruel and disgusting way to treat people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

...let him wear his turban

I actually struggled with this one a bit: at first glance, it appears to pit two of my most deeply held principles – pluralism and secularism – against each other. On the one hand I most certainly agree that Ireland should make reasonable accommodation to the cultural traditions of newcomers, and allowing male Sikhs (how many are there here? A thousand or so?) to wear their turban strikes me as eminently reasonable. There is no suggestion that it will interfere with their job performance in any way, or cause anyone else any harm or offence.

On the other hand, I am strongly sympathetic to the argument (as expressed in a couple letters in today's Times, subs required) that religion should be kept out of public life entirely. The state should not be involved in promulgating faith in general, or any faith in particular – and police officers, when on duty, are agents of the state. If a Catholic Garda wanted to wear a big fuck-off crucifix I wouldn’t be complaining if he or she was told to take it off.

But there’s a key difference there - and I’m not talking about the lack of an onus on Catholics to wear crucifixes, in the way that Sikh men feel they have to wear turbans. I think the crucial issue isn’t the beliefs themselves but the socioreligious context in which this dispute is taking place. The south of Ireland is, in most respects, and notwithstanding the undeniable (if far too slow) changes that have taken place over the past couple decades, still a country permeated with Catholicism. Our population is 90% Catholic. Our schools are 95% Catholic. Our elected representatives (on a parliamentary level, anyway) are about 97% Catholic. And this is still, unfortunately, reflected in many of the laws and policies that affect our daily lives – including the lives of those of us who want nothing to do with the Church and its teachings. To have Gardaí going around wearing crucifixes would just reinforce the essentially Catholic-theocratic basis on which this state is still to an unacceptable degree run. You can hardly say the same about a Sikh policeman in a turban.

Now the logical conclusion to this is that Sikhs and Catholics would have to be treated differently: the former given permission to openly display their religion, the latter prohibited. It’s not a position I’m entirely comfortable with, framed in those terms. But in a way, I think it boils down to the same question that has divided the US in recent years with regard to affirmative action, or the Six Counties on the 50-50 PSNI recruitment issue: is differential treatment acceptable to achieve equality of outcome? I have always felt that it is, at least under some circumstances. It’s all well and good for the law to say that everyone is equal and no distinction will be made but, in practice, in societies where the dominance of one category of people has been firmly entrenched, such a policy usually just ends up reinforcing the status quo.

The questions we need to ask here are what kind of Ireland do we want, and what policy will best help us achieve it. As I've stated, I want one that is pluralist and secular. Allowing your man to wear the turban would obviously promote the first of these; as for the second, it probably wouldn’t help, but I’m hard pressed to imagine how it would hurt, either. We aren't a secular state, and we aren't going to become one by limiting the rights of minorities to practice their religion. They are the wrong target for us 'aggressive secularists'. When we have a society where belief is genuinely a matter for the individual, and the state actually is no longer promulgating religion in general or any religion in particular, I'll revisit my views on this issue. But until then...

And what if it was a vaccine against prostate cancer?

A member of a Government expert panel has criticised the delay in recommending whether a cervical cancer vaccine should be provided under a National Immunisation programme. link

OK, let's look at the facts.

  • Studies suggest that up to 75% of people may contract the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, at some point during their reproductive years.

  • Ireland has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in Western Europe.

  • 180 Irish women are diagnosed with this illness every year.

  • 80 Irish women a year die from it.

  • In clinical trials, the vaccine was found to be 100% effective against the types of HPV linked to most cervical cancers. Link.

What about this is a tough call?

Aer Lingus: It's the electorate, stupid

Fintan O’Toole annoys me as much as the next person, but when he gets it right does he ever get it right. His column in today’s Times (subs required) says exactly what I have been wanting to say since this Aer Lingus story first broke. Actually, it says exactly what I’ve been thinking since the election. Undoubtedly, it says what I’ll be thinking after the next election too, because in all likelihood the Irish voters will grumble and whinge for the next five years about what a shower of bastards we have in office and then on polling day they’ll go right back and put that shower in again. And then complain when they do the things that Irish politicians do. And so on, ad nauseum.

But we all know this; the question is what do we do about it. Usually the problem is identified as the peculiarly clientelist nature of (southern) Irish politics, and electoral reform is put forward as the solution: get rid of the dual mandate, for example, and TDs won’t have to focus so much on issues properly in the purview of councillors.

That hasn’t worked.

Increasingly the multi-seat constituency is coming under fire: TDs are competing with their party colleagues, the argument goes, and so there’s a great incentive for them to try to build up support from the voters through parish pump type stuff. I’m not convinced by this. For one thing, it doesn’t happen in the US, although the primary system there also means that candidates compete with party colleagues. Of course the party whip system doesn’t exist in the US so party colleagues can compete with each other on ideological grounds, something they can’t do here. But Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t really be said to be competing on ideological grounds, either, so a system under which their candidates are competing with each other (and other parties) rather than first and foremost amongst themselves is hardly likely to eliminate the incentive for them to boost their support through constituency work.

Some of my own party colleagues are in favour of introducing some sort of list system, in which, for example, half the Dáil is elected in the current manner, while the other half is selected by party officials according to the percentage of vote that each party receives. Presumably, the ‘appointed’ TDs would not be bound to do constituency work, not having any constituency to be bound to. There’s merit in that argument, but I can’t help thinking that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about allowing them to be chosen by appointment rather than directly by the people. We complain about this in the Seanad (not that that stopped us … well I won’t go there for now) so I don’t really see how we can support it in the Dáil. The wild optimists also think that this system would increase the extent to which the electorate votes on ideological grounds, because they know they are not just voting for their candidate but for his or her entire party. Again, unconvincing. At the last election voters knew they were voting not just for their TD but for their government, and what did they do? Voted in the same shower of bastards they keep complaining about … again.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or whether it can be found through electoral reform at all. Clearly a cultural change is needed - Irish voters do need to stop thinking of their TD as their councillor, social worker, all-purpose-fixer-upper – but there’s no guarantee that would stop them electing the same old crooks time after time, anyway. I’m sure I don’t need to point to examples in other countries to demonstrate this. Whether it’s PR-STV, FPTP, party list, whatever, the bottom line is that nothing is going to change until the voters take it upon themselves to decide that they aren’t going to put up with it anymore.

And if you think that’s going to happen any time soon, I have a landing slot in Shannon to sell you.

Normal service resumes!

I am back from my holidays, rested and ready to get back in the swing of things around here. Slowly, though. For now, just a brief comment on today's Irish Times report that an investigation into serious allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Quinn Direct insurance company, in cahoots with serving members of the Garda Síochána, has concluded that the smoking-gun document was forged.

This investigation was carried out by ... the Garda Síochána. What did anyone expect them to find?
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