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Agbonlahor family’s deportation highlights racism of Irish state

Andrew Johnson

29 August 2007

While the Dublin government presents to the world an image of a multicultural Ireland enriched by its new immigrant communities, the shocking case of the deportation of a Nigerian woman and her six-year-old twins, one of them suffering from autism, has illustrated the uglier side of the migrant experience in today’s Ireland.

Olivia Agbonlahor, who had lived in Italy since 1993, moved to Ireland with her one-year-old twins in 2002, citing fear of reprisals after her husband had criticised criminal elements within Italy’s Nigerian community. They settled in Kerry, where large numbers of local residents have supported the family’s case for remaining in Ireland. However, the government had determined that the family should be deported, and had refused all appeals. Finally, the family was arrested on 14 August and put on a plane to Lagos, even though another appeal was due to be launched in October.

The failure to prevent the deportation is the latest in a long line of failures that should lead to questioning of a number of background assumptions held by anti-racist militants.

The case has exploded the common idea that former Justice Minister, Progressive Democrat leader Michael McDowell, was a uniquely evil character and that his successor Brian Lenihan, often seen as being on the more populist wing of Fianna Fail, would be different in any real sense. What we see as a result of the Agbonlahor case is that this view of McDowell was based on his tough image rather than his actions, and that government policy has remained consistent. If anything, Lenihan, who is more concerned than McDowell to project a caring image, is more dangerous.

Other underlying assumptions were that the exceptional nature of the case and the human cost to the child would win support. This was based on Ms Agbonlahor’s son Great being diagnosed with autism following McDowell’s initial dismissal of their case. It was argued that Great would not receive proper care in Nigeria, and would indeed be stigmatised because of it. This is no doubt true. Therefore, the argument was made that, while the family may not qualify for refugee status, they should be granted exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds.

A similar argument was put during the citizenship referendum, based on the State’s deportation of children born in Ireland. Although the Agbonlahor children were not born in Ireland, having come here at the age of one, their case to stay was as compelling as any. But the humanitarian case ran up against the obstacle of government policy. For years now the major policy of the Dublin government towards the asylum issue has been to plug any loopholes that might allow foreigners into Ireland on any basis other than the oppressive indentured labour system for migrant workers. That was the whole point of the citizenship referendum, to get around constitutional restrictions that made it difficult to deport foreign families with Irish-born children.

Successive government have been unbending on this, and have refused to allow exceptions, even for the most pressing humanitarian reasons. It might seem ridiculous that the single case of the Agbonlahor family could undermine the State’s entire immigration policy, but that would appear to be Lenihan’s position just as it was McDowell’s. Unless pressure can be brought to bear on the government to change its policy, we will certainly see further cases like this in the future. The inflexible nature of the states policy was shown when a doctor provided evidence that Great was ill, grounds for delay.  Within a day the state had provided a counterdiagnosis from their medical team and a short note from the original doctor reversing his diagnosis!

The major problem is that, with class struggle at a low level, racism is high and growing in Ireland and is facing little resistance within the working class. There is little doubt that there is a lot of popular support for the government’s restrictive policy. Even despite the compelling case of the Agbonlahor family, a radio phone-in could only generate 52% support for the family’s right to remain with 48% opposing.

What is needed is to create a situation where the government is more afraid of an anti-racist backlash than tempted to play the race card. The basis for an anti-racist movement already exists. Hardly a deportation takes place without any mobilisation against it, and it is common for local communities to defend individual foreign nationals under threat. If these small and localised struggles could be broadened out politically and linked together, there would be some real potential to build an activist movement against racism.

The problem is that humanitarian and exceptionalist arguments are not strong enough to create a general resistance.  The high point of racist rivalry lies more in the workplace than in the community.  It is the trade union leadership who simultaneously call for special steps to protect local workers while at the same time agreeing measures within social partnership to outsource, deregulate and privatise jobs.  They have helped to lower solidarity and increase rivalry to the point where workers are asked to mobilise alongside the most reactionary representatives of capitalism to defend ‘free state’ jobs from rivals in the north of the country.

The central argument for anti-racism is not that the muted feelings of middle-class guilt can be mobilised. Rather it is an essential tool for workers if they are to avoid division and fragmentation and build a united movement of the working class.



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