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When Harris chickened out of moving McEntee, he lost the chance for a new approach to immigration

The scramble to clear the unsanitary tent city around the International Protection Office in Dublin on Wednesday begs the question of how it was allowed to develop in the first place

More than a month ago I asked a long-serving Dublin city councillor who had already begun canvassing for the local elections what people were saying on the doorsteps. “I’m not a racist, but ...” she replied. When I looked perplexed, she added: “That’s what they’re saying. I’m not a racist, but ...”.

It was clear to her that migration was beginning to trump all other issues in the capital. She went on to say that when she discussed the matter with voters, most of them did not express particularly racist views in terms of hostility to people of different backgrounds, or non-Irish people in general. What angered them was what they saw as the apparently uncontrolled influx of people claiming refugee status.

The councillor feels that the Government needs to be seen to make a serious effort to control the numbers and start deporting people who are not genuine refugees. Otherwise, she believes, we will see the election of a slew of anti-immigration candidates.

This issue has jumped to the top of the political agenda with the spat between the governments in Dublin and London over the surge in the number of people crossing the border to claim asylum in the Republic, in advance of the implementation of deportations to Rwanda from the UK.


Whether the numbers coming across the border is precisely 80 per cent of all asylum seekers, as stated by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, is immaterial: nobody appears to dispute that a large cohort of those now arriving seeking international protection are coming from the UK.

A recent High Court judgment in Dublin that the UK was not a safe country to which asylum seekers could be returned has exacerbated the problem. The Government has rushed to close the loophole with emergency legislation, and restore a 2020 agreement between the two countries on the return of refugees. However, even if the already agreed system is restored, it will have little or no impact as it has emerged that since 2020 not a single asylum seeker had been returned from this country to Britain.

The recent appearance of the Minister at the Oireachtas Justice committee, where she was skewered by Clare TD Michael McNamara, exposed just how ineffective she and her Department have been at implementing EU rules on deportations as well.

The scramble to clear the unsanitary tent city around the International Protection Office in Mount Street in Dublin on Wednesday begs the question about how it was allowed to develop in the first place.

Taoiseach Simon Harris had a golden opportunity to try to develop a new approach to the refugee issue by moving McEntee to another Department when he conducted his Cabinet reshuffle. He chickened out of moving the Minister against her will but has ended up having effectively to add Justice to his own area of responsibility. He took the lead in announcing that the emergency legislation to allow deportations to the UK would be agreed by Cabinet this week but it prompted a sharp response from British prime minister Rishi Sunak, who said that the UK would not take asylum seekers from Ireland or any other EU country.

In fact, Ireland is in a very different position from the rest of the EU, which has a common travel area under the Schengen agreement. We have refused to join Schengen in order to retain the Common Travel Area with the UK, so there is not a lot that can be done to control illegal migration in either direction.

The cancellation by British foreign secretary James Cleverly of a planned meeting with McEntee early in the week gave the impression of a serious rift between the two governments, but Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris moved quickly to calm things down. In fact, the spat had more to do with the optics than anything else. It suited Sunak to be seen to take a swipe at the EU and Ireland in advance of Thursday’s local elections in England, and it suited Harris to talk tough to try to show the Irish electorate that something is being done in response to the rapidly rising numbers of asylum seekers arriving here.

Once the dust has settled on the diplomatic row, the challenge facing the Government will be to develop a fair but firm policy for dealing with asylum seekers, wherever they come from. The interminable and costly process that allows cases to go on year after year is a boon for lawyers but nobody else. The continuation of that chaotic system is of no benefit to anyone, including asylum seekers themselves.

The issue is a problem for the Opposition as well as the Government, with polls showing consistently that Sinn Féin voters are more hostile to immigrants than those of any other party. It is no coincidence that Sinn Féin has been losing support since the issue moved up the political agenda, with that support now going to Independents of various hues.

Across Europe parties of the far right have been gaining ground because of immigration. The forthcoming European and local elections will be the real test of whether that mood is going to manifest itself here.