We shouldn’t import broken British rhetoric about migration

There was a time when we were rightly appalled about the language used about migrants in Brexit Britain. Now it is steadily being normalised here

Jacob Rees-Mogg – formerly best known for his winning turn as cartoon villain of Brexit, now to be seen nightly on GB News performing in the role of “news anchor” – has hit upon a catchier and more cost-effective solution to the UK’s migration issue than the Rwanda scheme. Forget “stop the boats”: this is going to look even better on the side of a bus. “Ship them to Ireland.”

The Common Travel Area presents a “golden opportunity” to move all the “illegal migrants” to a former army barracks near the border in Northern Ireland, he told viewers this week. “If it just so happens that they then end up crossing the Border ... so be it,” he said. Northern Ireland “can have some migrants which [sic] can then be sent over to the Republic where they’ll be wonderfully safe.” The benefits of this amusing wheeze include that it would cost less for Britain, “the EU would be so happy because it would fulfil its beloved human rights obligations, and the Irish Government could feel a sense of superiority to His Majesty’s government.”

Rees-Mogg is an old hand at creating political capital out of the notion of a migration crisis, but he’s not wrong about the last part. Nobody will be shocked at the Tories treating migrants as a pawn in some demented chess game – but depressingly, they are not the only ones who appear to see it like that.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee was right to criticise commentary in the Dáil about immigration which she says is “feeding” racism. But it was she who provided the opening gambit in last week’s war of words between the two governments, with her back-of-the-envelope assessment of the numbers of international protection applicants travelling over the border via Northern Ireland. As both sides argued about who should take “them” back – as though the issue under discussion was a faulty toaster rather than actual human beings – there was the unmistakable whiff of electioneering about it all, the sense of two governments seeing the shore recede, and desperately trying to cling to someone else’s small boat.


The notion that Ireland – which boasts that it now processes 92 per cent of asylum applications in “under three years” – will somehow be able to identify international protection applicants who arrived from the UK in a prompt manner, round them up and deposit them back to Britain is every bit as ludicrous as the idea that asylum seekers in Britain will sit around and wait patiently to be deported to Rwanda. Already the UK Home Office reports it cannot locate more than six in 10 migrants identified for deportation.

But none of these details matter as long as we’re talking about the migrants themselves as a crisis, and not the abject failures of the systems supposed to deal with them.

There was a time when we were rightly appalled about the dehumanising rhetoric used by Rees-Mogg and others about migrants in Brexit Britain. Now that kind of language is steadily being normalised here. The talk in some quarters of the Dáil is of tipping points, quotas, “massive influxes” and of our “generosity being trampled on”. Michael Healy-Rae warns of the “collapse of our education and healthcare services” if “even a fraction” of the migrants in the UK relocated here.

Meanwhile, 285 men who had been living in damp tents on Mount Street stood in the morning chill with their belongings packed into bags for life, waiting for a bus that would take them to, as one – Omar, aged 23, from Somalia – put it with almost pathetic optimism, “a good place. People are excited. Nobody is coming back.” By Thursday, some – including Omar – had already begun to return, the dream of a dry bed somewhere better vanquished. A few never managed to leave the city centre. One, a South African aged 53, said he spent Wednesday night wandering around the city with nowhere to sleep.

These men aren’t criminals; they are people who have left their homes for a variety of reasons, as generations of Irish have always done. Just like those generations of Irish, they are relying on the basic humanity of others to help them. They are legally entitled to seek international protection. They weren’t left erecting tents on a city street because of some failing on their part; they were there because of gross failings on our part, because our asylum system is broken. If, some day, they are joined by women and children, will we be so quick to demonise them?

It would be a mistake to give outsize significance to a few politicians ratcheting up the temperature or to read online debate as symptomatic of a changing public mood. Revealingly, an investigation by Sky News’s data unit found that more than half the chatter about Newtownmountkennedy on X originated in the US and only a fifth came from Ireland. And polling suggests the wider public in both Britain and Ireland have a more generous and nuanced view than many politicians. Here, mentions of immigration have declined month-on-month in Ipsos B & A Snapshot polling, falling to 12 per cent in the latest poll.

Still, we often don’t notice big changes while we’re in the middle of them; then we wake up years later and wonder who we have become. You can’t actually boil a frog to death in a pot of slowly warming water – it will just hop out, as James O’Brien points out in his book How They Broke Britain. People are generally less efficient. Brexit was the pot in which Britain slowly boiled. Now the temperature on this side of the Irish Sea has become uncomfortably warm. We are those frogs in slowly boiling water – but unlike the frogs, we are staying put.