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Coalition nervous about getting approval for EU migration pact

Expectation is Dáil and Seanad will vote in favour of opting into the pact, but volatility of views on immigration issues means outcome is far from certain

The Government’s decision to opt into a new EU migration pact, due to take effect in 2026, is the latest test of the Coalition’s capacity to achieve its policy goals against a backdrop that is more volatile – especially on immigration issues.

While there is, as yet, no credible suggestion that it would lose Dáil and Seanad votes planned next week to approve its decision – and no hint of a U-turn – there is a “nervousness” around, in the words of one Coalition source, due to a “lack of trust evident everywhere”.

In a nutshell, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has argued that the pact strengthens Ireland and Europe’s hand when it comes to dealing with growing migration and irons out uneven edges in the current system that are not in the State’s favour. She says it will result in a firmer, fairer system that will reduce time spent in State-provided accommodation and return those who do not have a right to asylum.

Sinn Féin has emphasised “sovereignty” in calling for its rejection while arguing “many decisions are better taken locally”. The problem for the Government is that, similar to the hate speech legislation and the family and care referendums, opposition to the pact is proving to be a rallying point across the political spectrum. Within the sprawling text of the pact, there is something there for all sides to oppose.


On the left, there are concerns about the use of detention and the expansion of fingerprinting to all asylum seekers aged six and above. The Irish Refugee Council wrote to the Justice Committee last week warning that the reforms will “result in less safeguards, increased detention and destitution among people seeking protection”.

The IRC says that the pact began with good intentions that have been “gradually eroded by various member states’ hardening positions”, arguing that change is indeed needed “but not at any price”.

Meanwhile, on the right, the pact is being portrayed as an unwelcome intrusion from Brussels on the red-button issue of migration. Michael McDowell, flush with the success of emerging as the champion of the No side in the family and care referendums, has strongly objected to the parliamentary scrutiny afforded to the decision. “He has become the trusted uncle on everything now,” says one Coalition insider with a sigh.

Take, for example, the mandatory solidarity mechanism, which would allocate a number of asylum seekers to each member state in order to relieve pressure on those who act as entry points to the bloc (and, sources say, to discourage them from simply allowing migrants to transit through their countries onwards). This has conjured all sorts of fears as one of the determinants of a state’s fair share is GDP, and Ireland’s is inflated beyond reference to the real economy due to the distorting effect of the multinational sector.

However, McEntee suggests that in reality, the impact of this will be quite muted – on current figures, some 648 relocations annually. Not a tiny number, but in the context of an anticipated 15,000 arrivals per year, not a game changer. Buying our way out of this would cost just south of €13 million; compared with the billions being spent accommodating refugees and asylum seekers already, that doesn’t come close to moving the dial.

Part of the nervousness in Government stems from a conviction that now is the time to act on migration while at least a broad consensus has been achieved in Europe – after European elections, a new parliament and a new commission may swing in a new direction, or away from cohesive reforms. Expert bodies, including the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), say that international co-operation is key to managing the movement of refugees.

“The agreement reached on the pact represents significant progress towards a more coherent, co-ordinated and effective EU response to migration and asylum,” says Enda O’Neill, head of the UNHCR in Dublin – while adding that “more work remains to be done to plan for its implementation”.

In truth, the Government doesn’t have to win the argument in the way it spectacularly failed to do in the referendum campaigns. But it will want to guard its majority as the opposition probes for weakness. Any sign of discontent from the Independent TDs who tend to vote with the Coalition will be noteworthy, as will evidence of unrest on the backbenches.