1 May 2024

The Republic’s migrant crisis threatens Northern Ireland


The atmosphere at this week’s British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC), which involved ministers from London and Dublin, was distinctly chilly. This wasn’t particularly surprising, given that before the meeting even took place, the Republic’s Justice Minister, Helen McEntee, blamed the UK and the Rwanda Act for an influx of asylum seekers to Ireland.

The Irish government is now drafting emergency legislation to ‘return’ illegal immigrants to the UK. Ms McEntee claimed that over 80% of these new arrivals are coming into the jurisdiction via the open border with Northern Ireland; an assertion that was richly ironic and must have raised some wry chuckles at Westminster. 

After the UK left the European Union, the Republic insisted aggressively that it would not tolerate as much as an extra camera at the Irish border. The former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, warned that a harder frontier risked provoking violence and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, claimed that infrastructure would breach the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The Brexit backstop and then the Northern Ireland Protocol were eventually devised to meet these demands.

In fact, an international border existed before the UK’s departure from the EU, and it included occasional immigration spot checks. But it suited Varadkar and his colleagues’ narrative to imply that the frontier had disappeared completely thanks to the peace process and Brexit was threatening to bring it back. 

There could scarcely have been a bigger contrast with the Republic’s messaging this week.

Yesterday, for example, the Irish government announced that it would redeploy officers from An Garda Siochana, Ireland’s police force, at the border, to stop asylum seekers entering the Republic from Northern Ireland. The Irish Times reported that Ms McEntee updated the cabinet on measures required to prevent the ‘abuse’ of the Common Travel Area that allows free movement between the UK and Ireland. 

This all sounded remarkably like the implementation of a harder border for immigration.  

Meanwhile, the new Taoiseach, Simon Harris, claimed that the Republic already had an agreement with the UK, reached in 2020, to send immigrants back. His government would legislate to redesignate Britain a ‘safe country’ for asylum seekers, after Irish courts ruled that the Rwanda legislation rendered this designation contrary to EU law. 

In response, Rishi Sunak was admirably direct and said that he was ‘not interested’ in any kind of returns deal, given that France would not accept asylum seekers who came to the UK from that jurisdiction. The backbencher, David Jones MP, summed up Conservatives’ lack of sympathy for Ireland’s position when he observed, ‘They wanted an open border and they have an open border’.  

In this instance, the Irish are justifiably being criticised for their hypocrisy, but unionists in Northern Ireland remain nervous about their government’s reaction. They are aware that, while ministers and Tory MPs sometimes talk tough, their record of standing up to Irish grievances over a longer period is weak.

To add to these anxieties, at the BIIGC press conference, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, was already sounding conciliatory. The relationship between the UK and the Irish republic, he said, was ‘strong enough to deal’ with their current disputes. 

Dublin is also taking an inter-state case against Britain at the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to challenge the new Legacy Act on the Troubles, which comes into force this week. The government responded angrily to that action, but there is a long-standing tendency in London to underestimate the role that anti-British sentiment plays in Irish politics.

In line with this habit of blaming everything on the UK, Dublin claims that the Rwanda Act is responsible for its recent flood of asylum seekers. The Republic has experienced rising anti-immigrant feeling, but its ministers cannot resist implying that the Irish are humane and progressive, while the Brits are intolerant and reactionary. The backlash in Ireland must ultimately be the fault of our government and its cruel plans to send asylum seekers to Africa.

The Republic’s current difficulties may be ironic or even deserved. But the complicating factor is that the Rwanda scheme really is unlikely to operate in Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the UK, thanks to the NI Protocol and Windsor Framework. The High Court in Belfast recently struck down the Legacy Act’s provisions in the province, on the basis that it was incompatible with human rights protections in the protocol.

Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission launched a similar argument about the Rwanda legislation while it was passing through Parliament. The government has appealed the High Court’s legacy decision, which implied that the House of Commons can no longer legislate freely for Northern Ireland. But it at least seems likely that asylum seekers in Ulster will have more legal options if they choose to challenge their removal.

If a prolonged dispute between the two governments develops over immigrants, then it’s possible that Northern Ireland could become an asylum dumping ground. There’s also a chance that the province will be cut off from the rest of the UK by an Irish Sea border for immigration, with the authorities mollifying Dublin by performing checks on people at Ulster’s ports. 

There is admittedly an element of theatre to Dublin’s threats to send asylum seekers back to Britain. The Irish government is under pressure to do something about the unprecedented increase in immigration. A surge of anti-immigrant feeling was responsible, in part, for Varadkar’s departure as premier. And the erection of a tented village outside the International Protection Office in Dublin, where claims for asylum are processed, has created a sense of panic among ministers.

Rather than address these problems directly, it seems that the Irish government wants to pick a fight with Britain to deflect public anger. It was telling that the Republic’s deputy prime minister, Micheal Martin, said this week that his administration’s claim that 80% of asylum seekers were arriving via Northern Ireland was not ‘statistical – it’s not a database or evidence base’. In other words, conveniently, this allegation against Britain need not even be proven. 

The UK has given a firm response so far to Ireland’s attempt to shift blame for its migrant crisis. The Prime Minister has a responsibility to ensure that the spat does not rebound on Northern Ireland. He can do that best by preventing the province from becoming overrun with refugees and refusing to placate Dublin with an extra layer of Irish Sea border. This is the Republic of Ireland’s mess, caused by years of virtue-signalling on migration, and the Irish government should clear it up.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.