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Ireland’s Migrants: Bordering on the Absurd

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Written by John Wilson Foster

The Irish Government is complaining that asylum seekers from the UK have used the unmanned Irish border to travel to Dublin via Belfast, and they threaten to send them back to the UK. Professor Foster unpacks the anti-British underpinnings in the Irish position.

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So the Tanaiste (Deputy PM) Micheál Martin is attributing the sudden alarming inflow of asylum-seekers into the Irish Republic to the invisibility of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee is sure that more than 80% of these migrants, many of them Nigerians, are coming from Great Britain via Northern Ireland.

Set aside that Martin has admitted that this percentage is “not statistical, it’s not a database or evidence base” but only a “sense” and a “perspective” that McEntee’s department has.  (After all, no border, no stats.)  Set aside that the migrants are, before they reach the UK, coming via the EU, of which the Republic is on the face of it a loyal and enthusiastic member state. Set aside that, as Michael Murphy pointed out inconveniently in the Spectator,  the “loophole” that the Taoiseach Simon Harris said Ireland will not provide “for anybody else’s migration challenges” is barely a month old. Serious rioting over Ireland’s asylum policy began in Dublin back in November 2023 when the Rwanda idea was still a pipedream and the riots have been repeated. Michael Murphy’s accessible documentary, Ireland is Full! Anti-immigration Backlash in Ireland, will put readers in the picture.

The “perspective” is all, and it is by reflex a venerable anti-British one. It is cultural history, not statistics, that is speaking and dictating policy.

So permit a Northern Irish believer in the Union time out to savour the irony of the Irish stance and engage in a little Schadenfreude. That is something Irish nationalists have fitfully enjoyed ever since Daniel O’Connell, early 19th century champion of Catholic emancipation, coined the slogan “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” before it became associated with John Mitchel, the mid-19th-century Irish revolutionary, and was acted on with determination by the rebels in 1916 who sought German help to compound England’s difficulty. They certainly enjoyed it immensely during the Brexit negotiations as back issues of the Irish Times will confirm in a trice.

This protesting Irish government is the same one that insisted during the Brexit negotiations there be no visible border between Northern and Southern Ireland. Now, with ironic fallout, that border is suddenly incarnated as that between the EU and the UK (Northern Ireland). This is most inconvenient for the Republic since its government thought they had achieved a borderless island but now have to complain about free undocumented human traffic across an unseen EU frontier that is nonetheless very much there.

However, it is unlikely that the Republic’s plan to return migrants to the UK will involve returning migrants across the nearest EU border crossing, i.e., across the boundaries of Derry, Fermanagh, Armagh or Down. This would openly identify Northern Ireland as in the UK. The plan to return the migrants to GB has required a change in Irish law to re-nominate the UK as a “safe” country for asylum-seekers, and must have stuck in Irish lawmakers’ craws since it redefines Britain in a positive light and lowers the Irish moral high ground occupied in the idea of the Republic as a humane sanctuary state. The symbolism in returning migrants to points north would insult the national goal of uniting Ireland by constitutionally sundering the whole island from the UK, thereby fracturing the Union.  The Irish picture of the island as one country, two systems, must be maintained but now will inevitably highlight the two systems rather than the one country.

Some readers will remember Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2018 showing EU27 dinner guests in Brussels a 46 year-old photograph of the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of a border post. Any denials to the contrary, Varadkar was predicting that the terrorists could come again if Brexit entailed a visible border on the island. It is surely probable that the implied threat was a factor in the contraption of the Protocol that has kept Northern Ireland partly in the EU economy and that, in the view of the British commentators Brendan O’Neill, Tom McTague, Mick Hume, Fraser Myers and Caroline Bell (in Briefings for Britain) damages and impedes the whole Union.

The terrorists of 1972 were of course the IRA. But it is yet another irony that the recent riotous protests have been carried out by not by the familiar terrorists of Irish tradition but by Myles na gCopaleen’s (Flann O’Brien’s) Plain People of Ireland. Indeed, a further irony is quite grotesque when one hears uber-nationalist Sinn Fein (once a fierce enemy of the EU and whose name means Ourselves Alone) condemning the recent attacks on police and setting of fires at the anti-immigrant demonstrations in Newtownmountkennedy in Wicklow – the IRA’s stock in trade in Northern Ireland for thirty years. But being in danger of losing the plain people’s votes which they believe they are entitled to, Sinn Fein, having previously supported the immigrants, has made an abrupt U-turn and is now against open borders. (Except the land border of Northern Ireland, presumably.) But the genie might be out of the Irish bottle and there is growing objection to Ireland signing up for the EU Migration Pact. The people smell something rotten in the state of Denmark – inappropriately since it is Denmark alone that is taking the immigration problem efficiently in hand. When they hold up banners shouting “Newtown Says No!” the plain people are, no doubt inadvertently, echoing northern unionists. It is just another irony, for they would have no time for unionists, holding up as they do banners shouting “No Plantation!” – a far right demand with unavoidable echoing allusion to the Ulster Plantation.

Readers will certainly recall how the EU’s more-than-willing cats’ paws Varadkar and Simon Coveney gave the UK a very hard time during Brexit.  In a further irony, Brexit, originally seen as a threat to the lucrative Irish horse-racing industry and other economic sectors, actually turned out to be a godsend for the Republic once the united Ireland campaigners realised that here via the Protocol/Windsor Framework was an avenue leading to a borderless all-island economy, to be hastened by means of Ireland’s own Belt & Road Initiative (the ten-year Shared Island Plan).

But the Irish feathers that were seriously ruffled during Brexit have yet to be preened back to a neatness; indeed, in the matter of England-Ireland relations they will never be without something approaching a revolution in the Irish “perspective”.  Ms McEntee took a shot in overtime at Brexit: “What’s clear in the decision that the UK have taken in choosing Brexit, they have actually seen an increase in people seeking asylum in their country”. So Ireland’s shaky capacity to handle asylum seekers travelling west through the EU and across the English Channel is somehow the fault of the 17 million Brits who voted Leave.

Rishi Sunak might have been a soft Brexiteer but he too with his Rwanda scheme is a British bully. Sunak’s scheme “is having a real impact on Ireland now in terms of people being fearful in the UK”, says Martin, before adding darkly, “maybe that’s the impact it was designed to have”. It was certainly designed to deter would-be asylum seekers and those fetching up illegally in boats from France and to encourage those already here to think twice about intending to stay put. It is doubtful, however, that Ireland was foreseen as the migrants’ alternative of choice. But nuances and reservations don’t matter. That Wolfe Tone’s identification of England as “the never-failing source of all our political evils” (happily quoted on the Sinn Fein website) is a couple of hundred years old doesn’t lessen its survival into our own day; it is first base in Irish political thinking in any crisis involving its neighbour. And in this case, the implied reiteration is an attempt to distract the pissed-off plain people by offloading to the ancient enemy Irish government and EU responsibility for the immigrant crisis now unfolding.

Where to begin with the Irish designation of the UK as first an unsafe, now a safe destination for undocumented immigrants? By the late 1950s, nearly 60,000 southern Irish were arriving in Great Britain annually, entitled to live, work and vote courtesy of the Common Travel Area (Britain-Ireland), an arrangement begun in 1922 after the Anglo-Irish Treaty and one whose provisions are overwhelmingly to the benefit of the Irish. Many of these immigrants were the unemployed, navvies and survivors of the wretched borstal-type industrial schools whose priest-governors actually despatched the boys to specific London districts, in effect as economic refugees. The remittance value of all these refugees over the decades would be staggering to compute.

From the 1980s before the Celtic Tiger, new kinds of Irish migrants poured into Britain, those whom Diarmid Ferriter, the Irish historian, calls NIPPLEs, New Irish Professional People Living in England. Of course, for centuries into the present British army recruits came from Ireland, and during that time Irish artists and sports people have also moved to Britain independent of economic circumstances, voting with their feet as an indeterminate category of Briton. The cream of Irish professionals and performers is almost exclusively resident in England since London is the cultural capital of Ireland. I paint this startling picture in the title essay of my new book, Ireland Out of England and Other Inconveniences (2024). In these regards, Ireland and the UK are one country, two systems, something the Irish should acknowledge and indeed celebrate.

The generous CTA might give Sunak a headache during the current Irish migrant crisis. So might the ETA.  During Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, the British government intended to introduce legislation that would require non-Irish EU citizens in the Republic of Ireland to apply for electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to cross the border into Northern Ireland and thence Great Britain. The ETA as then drafted would have been a simple way of blocking any migrants returning from the Republic. However, every nationalist party on the island of Ireland noisily opposed this mild British legislation.  The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, the Fine Gael minister of anti-Brexit fame who has declared he wants to see Northern Ireland wrested from the UK in his political lifetime, claimed the electronic visa breached the “peace process”‘ (nowadays, alas, a nationalist code-phrase for the relentless journey towards the break-up of the Union).  

The Irish objectors had only one thing dead centre in the middle of their minds: that the UK not effectuate its own border to the west, because this would hamper the long campaign to remove Northern Ireland from the UK and create a borderless island inside the EU. Even in the age of multiculturalism and globalism, Irish nationalism is a work in progress.  Coveney in reference to the proposed ETA said “not for the first time we will be asking for special treatment”.  As usual, they got it. No ETA is required by anyone resident in Ireland or coming to the UK from Ireland. Do the provisions of the CTA and the ETA legislation (creating a kind of mini-, non-EU Schengen area inside the archipelago) thus entitle the Republic to send asylum-seekers (currently “resident” in Ireland and certainly coming from Ireland) back across the Irish Sea without reference to the EU border?  Simon Harris intends to return asylum-seekers to GB according to the provisions of the CTA. What are the odds that Britain will in fact do a reverse Rwanda and take those fearful asylum-seekers back?

According to the Irish Independent, the asylum-seekers are coming from Britain through the Republic’s “back door” of Northern Ireland, a rarely used back door to Britain as the Irish prefer flights or ferries from the Republic. The metaphor is pungent. It is used in the title of the recent Policy Exchange report by Hendriks and Halem, Closing the Back Door: Rediscovering Northern Ireland’s Role in British National Security (2024). Ironically, the back door in this case is the Republic and its unmarked border. The Republic, as the report reminds us, has been a geopolitical security freeloader, dependent on the UK and NATO in the event of threatened invasion. In short, the Republic has conducted itself not as a sovereign nation but as a security dependency while enjoying the unearned moral virtue of neutrality. (Though not neutral in terms of noisy opinion, as its currently imbalanced and showboating anti-Israel and pro-Palestine tirades show.)

The report envisages a potential threat to the UK from the northern and western sea approaches and recommends re-integrating Northern Ireland into the British defence system after the military retrenchment on the heels of the IRA ceasefire. The seas around the Republic are seen to be vulnerable to foreign surveillance and incursion. Re-integration would be tantamount to reinforcing Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and in matters of security implying the importance of the border between Northern and Southern Ireland and the need for its surveillance. Who in the future might be coming to Great Britain via Northern Ireland and across the unseen Irish border? The report, however, is unlikely to be acted upon, as nationalists would produce their trump card – visible British military presence would disrupt “the peace process” and offend Irish sensibilities.

The ironies attending the Irish migrant crisis are a veritable cat’s cradle. They originate in the contradictions, anomalies and occasional absurdities in the “perspective” of the Irish state, and possibly in the nature of that state itself. Presumably it is a vague but powerful sense of these that drives the relentless united Ireland campaign. But they can’t be spelled out because they have to do with the fraught but intimate British-Irish relationship independent of Northern Ireland and which in my opinion is the real key to the Northern Ireland problem. In 1941, Orwell commended to his diary the German journalist Sebastian Heffner’s description of Eire as a “sham-independent country”. In his wide-ranging 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, Orwell wrote that “Eire can only remain independent because of British protection”.

But British protection assumes various inflections and iterations. Sunak and Harris will thread their way through the thicket of ironies that is the Irish migrant crisis towards what will probably be another British concession because, as the Northern Ireland Secretary Heaton-Harris in a muted response and a possibly plot-spoiling remark assured Micheal Martin, there was “no way that we would want to upset our relationship with Ireland”.  But unless the UK takes back the fearful Rwanda-dodging asylum-seekers, the Irish will be upset, if only because their government would then have to carry the can – themselves alone – for their EU-driven, pre-Rwanda immigration policy. What the Irish government will not do, alas, is ready its country for a radical re-set of the Irish-English relationship with its countless benefits waiting to be declared.

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The essays in John Wilson Foster’s new book, Ireland Out of England and Other Inconveniences (2024) grapple with immigration, Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement, the united Ireland campaign, Anglo-Irish relations, as well as identity politics, tribalism, decolonisation and indigenisation in Canada and the United States.

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John Wilson Foster