The Telegraph

On one level, the migrant row is a mutually-helpful farce. But has something changed in UK-Irish ties?

Published: 1 May 2024

Surveying the row over immigration policy in Ireland and the UK, I’m reminded of the Sham Fight, an annual event in Northern Ireland, in the tiny County Down village of Scarva, conducted by two groups of men dressed up as soldiers of King Billy and King James. There is much clattering of swords, at the end of which James falls theatrically to the ground, his troops pursued off the field, and the groundlings gigglingly ask each other the traditional question: “Who won?” You’re supposed to answer: “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.”

The political equivalent is when – usually for pressing electoral reasons – a Taoiseach and a British prime minister saddle up and threaten each other with “unhelpful” legislation. What ought to be a minor matter that could be resolved amicably between the two parties is then turned into an entertaining political battlefield.

This time, the two countries are in the mire over their own failed immigration policies and tempers are high over allegations that illegal immigrants are streaming from the UK over the border. Simon Harris, the new Taoiseach, goaded by Sinn Fein, clearly feels bound to square up to the Brits. As the Irish commentator John McGuirk put it, “the auld enemy has once again been rustled out from the back of the political cupboard, donned in the butcher’s apron [a rude description of the UK flag], and cast as the oppressor of all things good and decent and celtic.”

Meanwhile, in advance of local elections this Thursday, Rishi Sunak is clutching joyfully at the present that has been inadvertently given him by Irish ministers, who have claimed that immigrants are heading for Ireland because they’re scared of being deported to Rwanda. The Irish high court stirred the pot further by declaring that the Rwanda threat made the UK unsafe for illegal migrants. A British Conservative commentator has cheekily suggested that the UK should take advantage of the situation, and send illegal migrants to Northern Ireland to occupy disused military barracks near the border.

So on one level, this is a farce rather than a crisis, one that suits both sides to play up rather than end. But in the UK’s refusal to contemplate taking migrants back, in the absence of an EU-wide returns deal, is there also evidence that something more fundamental may have changed in Irish-UK relations?

We need to remember that, despite problems caused by violent extremists, the two neighbouring countries had been getting on pretty well since Irish independence. Ireland pretended to be neutral in the Second World War, but helped the Allies covertly and almost 70,000 of its young men joined the British forces.

The Common Travel Area has mostly operated smoothly for a century, Irish immigrants have made an invaluable contribution to the UK workforce, Irish citizens can vote in British elections, Irish entertainers are wildly popular, and the two populations get along just fine. And on the whole, politicians and diplomats have tried to keep the peace.

Ireland doesn’t admit it, but it has been exceptionally privileged. Without fuss, and drawing no attention to it, the RAF and the Royal Navy have guarded its seas and its airspace. During the financial crisis, when George Osborne provided a bilateral loan, it was to general approval.

But every so often, the national inferiority complex manifests itself in a bout of Anglophobia. Ireland saw Brexit as a betrayal, and responded like a spurned lover. While under Taoiseach Enda Kenny, British and Irish civil servants were discreetly sorting out a deal that suited both countries, from mid-2017 Leo Varadkar, his successor, mobilised the EU to reject any proposal of a land border, a petard from which the Republic now dangles. Many Brits will now consider that Ireland has made its bed with the EU, and should lie in it.

The truth is that Dublin probably has the ability to confront the immigration issue all on its own, without blaming the Brits. As McGuirk points out, immigrants are far more likely to be coming to Ireland because of Irish immigration policy, not the UK’s. The Irish could emulate the British and make a deal with Rwanda, as Denmark, an EU country has contemplated. In fact, in its desire to be popular, Ireland has become a softer touch even than the UK.

But both sides seem to prefer this war of words. So who will win? I don’t know. I’ll ask someone on Friday.

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