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Seven days that shook the Government on immigration

Tensions between Dublin and London over immigration are a reminder that politics between Britain and Ireland is more terse and fragile now

The International Protection Office on Mount Street, Dublin. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Late last Sunday evening, word began to leak out from the Department of Justice that a planned meeting between Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and her UK counterpart, home secretary James Cleverly, was off. The postponement of a meeting to discuss migration and the Common Travel Area set off a flurry of activity among flustered officials and Government operatives.

The official explanation offered by the British side was an “unavoidable diary clash” – a line that seemed almost contrived to invite disbelief, with ministerial bilaterals scheduled weeks if not months in advance.

Late on Sunday evening, Government spin doctors went into overdrive downplaying events: “It’s all good,” insisted one (in the next breath pointing out that the UK’s local elections were but 72 hours away) – but there was no dressing up the snub. It followed a rapid escalation of tensions the previous week, sparked by McEntee’s assertion that 80 per cent of Ireland’s asylum seekers were coming over the Border from Northern Ireland. That was seized on by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak as evidence that his controversial Rwanda policy was working, leading to volleys back and forth between him and Taoiseach Simon Harris over the weekend.

Against a backdrop of heightened pressure and tensions over migration in both the UK and Ireland, and with incumbent governments moving to – or fully on – an election footing, the stage was set for a rocky week.

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On Monday, McEntee pulled out of a planned appearance at the British Irish Inter-Governmental Council (BIIGC) in London, but found herself under renewed pressure over the 80 per cent figure. NGOs publicly chipped away at it, casting doubt on its reliability. On Monday, Tánaiste Micheál Martin told reporters at the BIIGC that the figure was not a hard data point, prompting accusations of him throwing McEntee under the bus.

The figure has always been an extrapolation, based on the views of officials in the International Protection Office (IPO) – but the idea that it might be flimsy proved a lightning rod, much to the frustration of those working inside the international protection system. One official griped that interviews with people applying for asylum last for hours – not every sentence can be extracted from a transcript and put into a usable form for statistical analysis. Yet the department is firm that its officers can form a well-founded view on underlying patterns. “They’re interviewing people for three or four hours each time,” said one source. “They can hear when someone arrives in and their kids have a Birmingham accent.”

McEntee stuck to her guns, but the unleashing of the 80 per cent figure had also confounded the British side. A source familiar with Home Office thinking said it came as a “surprise”, although there had been an awareness that there was a pattern of people moving North to South.

The idea that gardaí could be sent to scour the Border for immigrants had its genesis in briefings from the Irish Government that 100 gardaí would be freed up for frontline duties by the transfer of their immigration functions to department officials. This line had humble beginnings as a repackaging of old news proffered by McEntee at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) conference last month, and was redeployed in a post-Cabinet press notice on Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening, the front page of the following day’s Daily Telegraph was published online, proclaiming that Ireland was sending police to the Border arising from the row – despite the Taoiseach and the Department of Justice being cited in the story itself as saying this was not the case. “Pure mule,” a senior source dismissively texted on Wednesday evening.

It mattered little – the combination of British and Irish electoral politics and the migrant crisis was moving at light speed. On the UK side there were fingers pointed at Ireland for talking up the policing response; while in Dublin there was exasperation at how British political and media circles were gleefully upping the ante.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that Ireland could not 'cherry pick' from international agreements Photograph: UK Parliament/PA Wire

The tension was playing out nakedly in Westminster, where Sunak gladly told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Ireland could not “cherry pick” from international agreements – reiterating that the UK would not accept returns when it had no legal obligation to. This runs contrary to Dublin’s stated intention to begin sending migrants back to the UK as soon as new legislation has been passed, clearing legal obstacles to doing so presented by a High Court ruling last month.

In London, officials dispute the idea that once new laws are passed, the way will be cleared for large numbers of migrants to be returned. In truth, the system has never really been operational. Just one asylum seeker has returned to Ireland, with none going to Britain. Figures obtained by The Irish Times suggest hundreds of requests were not fulfilled – both sides have sought returns in the region of 1,800 people since inception. Irish government sources say Dublin has agreed to take seven, with one travelling, and that the UK agreed to take 201 people back – but that none were returned, with Ireland saying the High Court challenge it has faced to the returns policy is to blame. London’s view is that anyone returned under the agreement must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and have “sufficient connection” to the jurisdiction they are being returned to - diminishing the chances of it being effective even once new laws are passed. The hopes that a channel which was hitherto effectively dormant will spring into life and provide a pressure release valve seem just that - hopes.

The clearing of tents on Mount Street on Wednesday was a dramatic centrepiece to the week. As The Irish Times reported later that day, the move had been in gestation for some time, but the impetus came directly from the Taoiseach’s office last Thursday. By evening, a statement outlined that some 290 men had been accommodated, exhaustively detailing the methods of transit, the facilities available and what the plan for future accommodation was. It was a slick bit of operational theatre with a political bent, coming in the wake of months of charges against the Government over the inadequacy of its planning and communications efforts. But as is so often the case with migration, it could never hope to be as tidy as advertised: by Thursday morning it was clear that at least 30 men had been left without accommodation overnight, and on Thursday afternoon about 100 men queuing outside the IPO were handed letters saying there was no more accommodation for them. Later in the afternoon, the men were moved on by gardaí, headed towards the city centre. Overnight, at least one impromptu encampment sprang up in Ballsbridge.

Simon Harris in Belfast on Friday, on his first visit to Northern Ireland as Taoiseach. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The clearance at Mount Street and the emphasis on emergency legislation captures something deeper about the Harris administration’s tactics but also its limits. Harris has always been a politician who generated a lot of news – a maelstrom of announcements and initiatives. However, in all things, he is constrained. The legislation now being foregrounded by the Government began life as a drab miscellaneous Bill, remedying the returns issue and also passing new knife crime sentencing. The circumstances saw it rhetorically upgraded to emergency legislation, copper-fastening the attention of Fleet Street – but new Irish laws cannot force the UK to accept transfers. Mount Street can be cleared, but hundreds more asylum seekers remain unaccommodated.

Harris has emphasised the hard edge of immigration policy, shifting the frame to deterrence and security – but neither he nor McEntee can immediately overhaul a system to make it more effective at deporting or discouraging arrivals at a time when the overriding political current demands more to be done. A tender has been issued to charter aircraft for deportations, with the aim of dedicated flights taking off this year. Resources have been poured into the IPO, with more than 400 staff working there, compared with fewer than 250 this time last year.

Above all else, officials there are focused on speed of turnaround for applications, reasoning that the faster a rejection comes, the more likely someone departs thereafter.

The IPO will make about 1,100 decisions this month, but internally there are plans to double that by the end of 2025 as it grapples with migration flows (and a 20,000-case backlog) that represent a step change for the State and its systems. The department must also ramp up preparations for the anticipated enactment of the European Union migration pact.

There is an underlying view among officials that they have to get back to doing business with each other. Indeed, there is a scepticism about the emphasis that both political sides have put on the Rwanda policy, with a belief that increased flows into Ireland from Britain may have also been prompted by other factors, including changes to family reunification rules for lower-paid migrant labourers in Britain.

The ructions this week are probably not so damaging as to fundamentally undermine the post-Windsor Framework detente that had flourished between the two sides – and for the Coalition here, there is the prospect of a Labour-led government in London which may shed the Rwanda policy and be less gung-ho about skirmishing with Dublin. But they are a reminder that politics between Britain and Ireland is more terse and fragile now.

One British source who dined recently with figures from Irish business – core Fine Gael voters – recalled how they favourably compared the British immigration system with Ireland’s. Amid the row, the idea that migration is a bellwether for how a wider shift in Irish politics – which has already happened in the UK – is becoming more ingrained.