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London And Dublin Insist Rwanda Row Is A ‘Storm In A Teacup’

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London And Dublin Insist Rwanda Row Is A ‘Storm In A Teacup’

London And Dublin Insist Rwanda Row Is A 'Storm In A Teacup'

Taoiseach Simon Harris (Alamy)


4 min read

A row between the UK Government and the Republic of Ireland over illegal migration has been dismissed as being “blown out of proportion” by diplomatic sources on both sides of the Irish Sea.

This weekend reports emerged indicating tension between the two sides over Rishi Sunak‘s Rwanda policy and the claim from Dublin that it has driven a spike in asylum seekers entering the Republic of Ireland via its open border with Northern Ireland. A pre-arranged bilateral meeting between Helen McEntee, the justice minister in Dublin, and Home Secretary James Cleverly that was pencilled in for Monday was subsequently postponed — fuelling suggestions that there was growing tension between the two sides.

But figures in London and Dublin are keen to “take the heat and hysteria” out of the situation, which some believe is being played to the political advantage of both parties. 

A Government source told PoliticsHome that the meeting between the two ministers would be re-arranged, and stressed that it was not unusual for meetings to be postponed.

A Whitehall official described the row as a “storm in a teacup”, and said that elements on both sides had an interest in talking up the row for political purposes. “It’s just been blown out of proportion and it’s being used by both sides to seem tough,” they told PoliticsHome.

Sunak, who has made stopping small boat crossings a key promise to voters, faces the prospect of significant Tory losses at local and mayoral elections being held on Thursday, while opinion polls continue to suggest that the Conservatives are very likely to lose the next general election to Keir Starmer‘s Labour Party. Newly appointed Taoiseach Simon Harris, meanwhile, has local elections of his own to think about in June, while there are concerns in the Republic of Ireland about the growth of far-right politics.

Last week McEntee told a parliamentary committee in Dublin that 80 per cent of asylum seekers who had recently arrived in the Republic of Ireland appeared to have entered the country from Northern Ireland. Michael Martin, the country’s deputy prime minister, added that Sunak’s policy of deporting refugees to Rwanda as a means of deterring illegal migration was “having a real impact on Ireland” by making asylum seekers “fearful” of being in the UK.

“They’re leaving the UK and they are taking opportunities to come to Ireland, crossing the border to get sanctuary here and within the European Union as opposed to the potential of being deported to Rwanda,” Martin said last week.

Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Sunak, who is under significant pressure to demonstrate to the public as well as critical Conservative MPs that his approach to stopping small boat crossings will be fruitful, said the remarks by the Irish ministers showed that the Rwanda plan was “already having an impact because people are worried about coming here”.

The Irish government last week said it would take steps in legislation to ensure it has the ability to return asylum seekers to the UK, further fuelling the idea that London and Dublin were headed for an even bigger row.

However, the Irish Government has today stressed the move was always planned, and will be limited to addressing a recent Irish High Court ruling which said that the UK could not be considered a safe country to send refugees due to the risk of deportation to Rwanda. One source in Dublin described the steps being taken as “technical”. 

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Sunak’s official spokesperson reiterated that the Government would not pursue a returns agreement with Dublin as long as the European Union, of which the Republic of Ireland is a member state, would not agree to take asylum seekers from the UK.

“As things stand, the EU doesn’t accept asylum returns from the UK, for instance, to France. And so from the UK government’s perspective, we are not going to start accepting returns from the EU while that’s the case,” they said.

They added that the Irish government passing new legislation “wouldn’t change the fact that it is the UK Government which decides who we do and don’t accept into the country”.

However, they struck a more cautious tone when it came to the 80 per cent figure cited by the Irish government, telling reporters the UK Government does not have its own data that it can use to corroborate that figure.

“For our part we don’t have the data,” they said. “If that’s what the Irish government is seeing, then you can see some evidence of a deterrent effect. I’d caution around those figures. We haven’t got data on exactly what those movements are like. Obviously, that is something we’re continuing to monitor.”

Also speaking on Monday, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said the government “in no way” wants to “upset our relationship with Ireland”, explaining that since Brexit the UK has been directed to deal with the EU as a whole on matters like migration.

Heaton Harris was speaking at a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London, where he led discussions with Irish deputy prime minister Martin.

In a joint statement issued afterwards, the two sides said they had agreed “monitor this issue closely and noted the importance of continuing to work together on these matters”.

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