UK, Ireland Leaders on Collision Course Over Migration Surge

(Bloomberg) -- A dispute between the UK and Ireland over a surge in asylum-seekers is threatening to upend their already fragile relationship. With elections on the horizon for the leaders of both countries, neither side appears likely to back down.

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Disagreements between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his newly installed Irish counterpart, Taoiseach Simon Harris, burst into view this week as the government in Dublin advanced emergency legislation allowing it to return asylum-seekers to the UK. Sunak hit back, vowing not to abide by a previous agreement to take them, so long as Ireland’s fellow EU member, France, refused to accept migrant returns from Britain.

The episode has renewed worries about the recent settlements on post-Brexit trade across the Irish Sea and power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK. At the heart of those agreements is maintaining an open north-south border on the island of Ireland, despite the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2020.

The flow of people across that frontier is now coming under greater scrutiny in Dublin as Sunak ramps up his campaign to “stop the boats” carrying migrants across the English Channel from France. Harris’s justice minister, Helen McEntee, told a parliamentary committee last week that 80% of those seeking international protection in her country had come from the North.

On Thursday, authorities in Dublin renewed efforts to clear migrant encampments outside Ireland’s international protection center in the capital. Irish media reported that the republic would post police near the border with the North, a controversial idea that was quickly denied by the Department of Justice. The Irish police said its members wouldn’t be “assigned physically” to the border.

The dispute is fraught with centuries of history between Ireland and the island’s former colonial rulers in London. An integral part of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the decades long conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, was an open border.

Continued movement across the border was also one of the most contentious issues between the UK and the EU in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. And Harris, who took control of the ruling Fine Gael party after the surprise resignation of Leo Varadkar in March, needs to look strong while standing up to Britain ahead of an election that must be held within 10 months.

“I’m not sure how they are going to get over it anytime soon,” said Muiris MacCarthaigh, head of politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. “They need to cooperate but any rowing back on commitments particularity by the British government, politically it would be disastrous.”

Immigration has become one of the top issues concerning voters in Ireland amid a crisis in housing. Over 1,800 asylum-seekers are currently homeless and sleeping on the streets.

Sunak faces similar pressures at home, where the populist Reform UK party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage has pledged “net zero” immigration as it attempts to cut into the ruling Conservative Party’s vote. With asylum-seekers surging into the country — including a record 7,567 in the first four months of the year — Sunak has passed law allowing migrants to be deported to Rwanda and rebuffed Harris’s request to accept more for Ireland.

Harris, in turn, said that the country wouldn’t “provide a loophole” for another country’s immigration challenges.

An Irish court ruling in March precipitated the current standoff. In a remarkable parallel to a similar decision by the UK’s highest court last year, the Irish tribunal determined that the UK wasn’t a “safe country” to send asylum-seekers back to in light of Sunak’s Rwanda plan.

That effectively froze a 2020 “operational agreement” between Ireland the UK that allowed for the transfer of asylum-seekers between the two sides. While no migrants had been sent under that deal, the bill approved by the Irish cabinet sought to restore its viability.

Sunak has said that the UK had no legal obligation to accept asylum-seekers returned from Ireland. Speaking to ITV news, Sunak said he was “not interested” in a returns deal if the EU didn’t allow the UK to send asylum seekers back to France.

The tensions were apparent after UK Home Secretary James Cleverly canceled a meeting with McEntee on Monday on the sidelines of an intergovernmental conference, citing “diary issues.” While Irish Deputy Prime Minister Micheal Martin and British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris tried to show a united front when they met later that day, the immigration spat continued to rattle on.

The political calendar ensures high stakes for both sides. Local and European Parliament elections are to take place in Ireland on June 7. Sunak, whose party suffered widespread losses in UK local elections on Thursday, hopes to make a crackdown on what he calls illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign in a general election expected later this year.

“There is definitely a sense that British-Irish relations are currently on a roller coaster,” said MacCarthaigh, of Queen’s University Belfast.

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