A tougher asylum system is now a political necessity. That might not be pretty

There needs to be a second half of the plan beyond telling the continuing arrivals that they’re on their own. All this just plays to the ‘Ireland is full’ gang

The past week has seen a sour political row between Dublin and London that threatened to pitch Anglo-Irish relations back to the bad old days of Brexit. Perhaps both sides saw political advantage from it. If so, it will be short-term only. Rishi Sunak, as Thursday night’s local election results so vividly demonstrated, has bigger problems. In Dublin, Simon Harris’s Government has now made a rod for its own back that it may come to rue.

It was the Irish Government that fired the first shots. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee – who is under growing scrutiny by friend and foe alike – told the Oireachtas justice committee last week that 80 per cent of asylum seekers were arriving in the country across the open border with Northern Ireland. The figure generated some interest at the committee, but made big headlines after it.

The large proportion of arrivals from the North, committee members understood, was an issue because, as McEntee told them, a recent High Court case “has prevented us from returning people to the UK”, as per the agreement between the two governments.

“Due to a recent court ruling, returns to the UK have been paused. That High Court ruling will be addressed. I will have a miscellaneous provisions Bill in the coming weeks that will address it, which will mean that we will be able to return people,” she said.


But as we discovered this week, that’s not quite the full picture. Contrary to the impression given by McEntee to the justice committee, the agreement to return asylum seekers between Ireland and the UK has not actually been “operational” for some years. There were some returns before Covid; there have been none since. The High Court decision only happened on March 22nd this year – literally a few weeks ago. It’s not what caused returns to the UK to be paused, as McEntee told the committee (who might want to take this up with her at some stage). Her department just never got around to starting them again after Covid.

Over in Jordan, Tánaiste Micheál Martin had heard the news, and espied the “Rwanda effect”, the fallout from the British Government’s mad plan to deport illegal migrants to the central African country.

“It is having a real impact on Ireland now in terms of people being fearful in the UK – maybe that’s the impact it was designed to have,” he said. Too right, said an embattled Rishi Sunak, seizing the opportunity presented by the Tánaiste with some gusto. This for sure is the Rwanda effect, and we’re lovin’ it. Or words to that effect.

Simon Harris girded his loins, declaring that, “this country will not in any way, shape or form provide a loophole for anybody else’s migration challenges”, and the two prime ministers traded barbs for days. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly cancelled a meeting with McEntee in London; McEntee responded by cancelling her trip entirely, declaring instead that she was remaining at home for meetings with her senior officials, which was a surprise to at least some of her senior officials who were already in London for the now-abandoned meetings.

Irish politicians from the Taoiseach down, senior officials and commentators sniffed that the British were just playing politics. They were right. Sunak is on a sinking ship and he will grab at anything that looks like a lifeline.

But the Irish Government is hardly above playing politics either. Simon Harris knows that Leo Varadkar’s relentlessly tough stance with the British during the Brexit wars was rewarded with sky-high approval ratings; and stuffing it to the old enemy is good politics for any taoiseach.

Good politics maybe; not always good government. It was hard to discern any long- or even medium-term strategy to the Coalition’s actions this week. Declaring that returns to the UK will restart in a few weeks when the emergency legislation is passed is only credible if the UK is willing to take them – which it clearly is not.

What then? A Government that has failed to have an effective system of removing people who are not entitled to stay in the State is now committed to deporting people. If it fails, that failure will be both obvious and politically costly. So by accident or design, the Government has now made a tougher asylum system a political necessity. That might not be pretty.

But at least it needs to be thought-out and effective. On Mount Street, the decision to clear the tents and move the men who had been staying there looked both sensible and resolute. That was on Wednesday. By Thursday, as new arrivals wondered where they were supposed to go, it seemed that plan didn’t go much beyond clearing Mount Street. That may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. There needs to be a second half of the plan beyond telling the continuing arrivals that they’re on their own.

All this just plays to the “Ireland is full” gang. And that is certainly not a good outcome. Sensibly managing the politics of immigration – which are with us now, make no mistake, and will be on the ballot papers in the forthcoming elections – will require greater foresight than this. Responsible politicians should be careful about how they proceed.

It is not illegitimate to have a discussion about immigration, and to differ politically on it. Of course it isn’t. But mindful of how divisive and destructive such debates can be – and have been, in many EU countries and in the UK – it should be done with sensitivity, tact, honesty and at least some degree of farsightedness. I fear this is exactly what is not happening.

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