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Ireland miraculously discovers its hard border

Gardai officers man a checkpoint on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Credit: Getty

May 1, 2024 - 11:50am

For those who have been following the twists and turns of the national debate on the Rwanda scheme, the unfolding row with Ireland presents an embarrassment of riches.

Remember when parliamentary legislation to deem Rwanda a safe country was an assault on the rule of law? Well, Dublin is now doing the same thing — passing a law to declare the United Kingdom safe in order to get past a High Court ruling.

Then there’s the question of how those sceptical of the scheme’s potential as a deterrent explain Ireland’s claim that the Rwanda policy has driven a surge of people crossing from Northern Ireland to claim asylum in the Republic.

But for those with longer memories — a necessity in Irish affairs — perhaps the most galling development is yet another reminder that, despite the line sold to British negotiators during Brexit, Dublin can and will police the land border when it chooses to.

Sky News’s Darren McCaffrey reports that 100 Gardaí (police) officers are being deployed “to prevent people abusing the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK as a means to enter Ireland to claim asylum”.

Now the Irish Government insists that this force is not going to be deployed at the actual border itself. “The protection of an open border on the island of Ireland was and remains a key priority to the communities on both sides of the border,” according to a Garda spokesman.

Fair enough, one might think. But remember: time and again, as Britain negotiated its departure from the European Union, Unionists floated proposals for just such a light-touch approach to enforcing a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

And time and again, they were dismissed. When their critics were not trying to claim that any border whatsoever would breach the Belfast Agreement (it wouldn’t), they insisted that such proposals were unworkable.

Yet suddenly not only is enforcing a legal, if not physical, border on the island of Ireland fine, but the Irish Government professes to believe it will work — and this time in dealing not with registered importers and exporters, but illegal migrants and refugees.

In truth, the maximalist position pursued by Dublin and Brussels during the negotiations was always cant. Ireland can and has enforced the border when it suits, as happened during the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Its entire position during Brexit was that a hard border was utterly unacceptable — and that it would impose one if Northern Ireland wasn’t forced into ongoing alignment.

Unfortunately Theresa May, like other mainland politicians before her, memed herself into a terrible policy, allowing her line about “no return to the borders of the past” (a reference to a security border created to try and combat a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing by the IRA) to mutate into a policy of no border at all.

Her opponents were astonished. Tom McTague reported one Dublin figure as saying: “We just could not believe the British had accepted the text.” The simple fact is that if a totally invisible border were a stipulation of the Belfast Agreement (which it isn’t) then it would bind both parties, not just the UK. There would be reciprocal restraints on Ireland’s freedom of policy action to prevent it diverging.

These latest developments are just another reminder that no such restraints exist, and that we owe the Sea border to a generation of politicians whose experience of Northern Ireland amounts, at best, to flying over for a day and voicing the right pieties.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago

There is, of course, a world of difference between the temporary imposition of certain controls and checks to address an issue that has arisen unexpectedly and is anticipated to be short-term and the resurrection of permanent measures that deal with normal flows of goods and people.
Public policy is littered with examples of authorities placing restrictions on transit from point A to point B (during Covid, for example, we had parts of England designated as different ‘tiers’, with restrictions on movement between them) that in no way imply the creation (or wisdom) of a permanent, hard border.
Dublin’s reaction to a rapidly developing asylum / migration issue is not quite the Brexit slam-dunk that some might suppose.

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
19 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Delusional to think Asylum Seekers are going away anytime soon.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
19 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

You’re forgetting that unherd (sic) commentators never pass off a good chance (and this is a good one, by golly) to let off steam.

jane baker
jane baker
19 days ago

I find it hilarious that the people who for decades upbraided us English about those 1950s land ladies with No Irish.signs up in their windows,so violently abusively racist,it made my Nan cry,now are out on the streets rioting. But maybe it’s sensible to start.as they mean.to go on rather than spend 30 or 40 years trying to get adjusted but find out the more you accept,the more outrageous will be the demands made on you.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
19 days ago

Oh yes, this row is really quite entertaining. Schadenfreude is a bit like getting drunk. You know it’s unattractive…but you still do it every now and again, because you can and because it’s fun. And I am enjoying my schadenfreude.
You had to be blind and stupid not to understand that the inner Irish border was being weaponised in the Brexit negotiations. Even though it is an important part of the settlement, that importance was strained and strained by the EU and Ireland. And now Ireland is tying itself in knots and the EU…well, where is the EU right now? Backing Ireland up to the hilt again? No? Fancy that…
Still, the article overstates the issue. 100 Gardai stationed around the border does not a hard border make. To be a hard border (and to have any effect on the stream of migrants coming over it), you’d have to have Gardai stretched around the 6 counties hand in hand day and night like the Baltic Chain.
Do you think migrants would actually walk down the road straight into a police check and not go over the green border? Come on. It’s a fluff measure to placate the populace.

Anthony Sutcliffe
Anthony Sutcliffe
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

My view is that May knew exactly what she was signing up to. She wanted to use the NI border as a means of bouncing her party into close alignment with the EU.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
19 days ago

I’ve seen no evidence that, at any point in her tenure at No 10, May had any clue what she was doing.

John Howes
John Howes
17 days ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

May cowardly as ever, abdicated responsibility, leaving it to unelected Civil Servants like Oillie Robbins who proceeded to sell out this country at evey opportunity. Bypassing her Cabinet members Davies and Raab. .

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Anybody who has actually driven along the border will know just how difficult it would be to police. It goes tortuously across country without seeming rhyme or reason, often through villages and houses, following old county boundaries which go back centuries. It sometimes follows the ancient, thousand-year old borders between long gone Irish kingdoms and lordships, which, sometimes used well -trodden cowpaths to decide on territorial limits… Good luck to the Gardai with that!
David Eades

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
19 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Migrants scale mountains in order to get to Europe. I’ve never been to NI, but I’m pretty sure their green border isn’t that mountainous – no hurdle to desperate people who’ve decided where they want to be.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
18 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It’s not even a hurdle to me, who is neither desperate nor athletic. A pleasant walk north from the northern suburbs of Derry will take you into the Republic without noticing you’ve done it.

Liam F
Liam F
19 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I have to admit it too : I actually laughed out loud. Talk about what goes around , comes around..
Timeline:
2019: There can be no hard border in Ireland!
(although a trade border is fine if it screws up the Brits)

March 2024:I rish High Court declares UK an unsafe country to send asylum seekers due to Rwanda policy.

April 2024: Feckin’ hell lads! , ship those asylum seekers back across the border. Oh jaysus we can’t ! Let’s overturn our own high court. And find that border again .

Summer 2024: Ireland declares the UK is actually now part of “Greater Ireland” . All asylum seekers are to be sent for processing onshore -to Liverpool.

DenialARiverIn Islington
DenialARiverIn Islington
15 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Yep. A cypher. Actually, an Irish joke. They obviously know perfectly well that people who have crossed a continent and a sea are unlikely to be deterred by three Gardai and a dog!
They’ve done this to themselves and boy, oh boy, but do they deserve it!

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
19 days ago

The Irish government has concluded that smearing its own citizens concerned about the level of immigration as far right racists is proving electorally unproductive. Better to blame the Brits, and better yet the Tories. And they might even get away with it if an incoming Labour government drops the Rwanda scheme and agrees to impose passport checks on flights and ferries between GB and NI.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I think if the flights take off and the boats subsequently stop, all bets are off for the general election.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

You’re dreaming ! It’s far too late in the day for anything (short of a war) to make any difference. The mood has set in. Rwanda’s not going to move the needle. It simply can’t make enough difference to the numbers anyway.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I disagree Peter (though of course it may be wishful thinking).
The Tories have to persuade voters on the right – basically the Brexit/ Boris voters – to vote for them rather than abstaining or voting Reform). I think if Rwanda is a success and todays falls in legal immigration numbers herald further falls in the coming months, that might be enough to pique their interest.
If they can get Reform down to 1% and switch a good chunk of Don’t Knows back to CON, then they will be in striking distance of Starmer and it will be all to play for in the campaign. And Sir Keir is a very poor performer under pressure.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Labour’s picking up around 30 seats in Scotland. The Tories are losing a pile to Labour in England and a good chunk to the Lib Dems. It’s over.
Not even the Tories believe they won’t lose. Half of them have already thrown in the towel. You can’t win if you don’t actually want to win and believe in yourself. And they don’t.
And they’re led by a man whose campaigning skills are at best unproven and will be labelled as an out of touch billionaire ex-banker. The fact that he’s probably a decent, competent, hard-working bloke won’t matter. It’ll get drowned out in the noise.
We’ll all say nice things about Rishi when he loses and his reputation will slowly recover.
And another 5 years in power would really finish off the Tory party. If indeed they’re capable (which is very much in doubt right now).

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
18 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I fail to see Sunak’s competence. And where are his advisors? Voters dont care 2 hoots about higher defence spending. They see no effort to cut gov spending or regulations. They are aware that tax levels for wages were frozen, while benefit levels rose witb inflation. Sunak may be hard wiorking, but he is very badly advised , and stubborn about eg his flagship policy of a 35% rise jn tax on buinesses, which has not raised a penny extra in tax and is forcing companies to leave England.

R S Foster
R S Foster
16 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

“Higher Defence Spending” is an easy sell in the form of high skill/high tech manufacturing jobs in big numbers in “Red Wall” areas…just lay out the post-election contracts for building aircraft, ships, tanks…and missiles…and ammunition. Plus support for homegrown steelmaking to underpin it, a big push on oil and gas to fuel it…and on recruitment of tough lads with few good choices in life to man it…

…then dare Labour to match them, and go really big on their woke, multicultural, migrant friendly missteps – their real preferred programme – when they wont.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

It sounds to me like Labour will not reverse the Rwanda scheme if it a) actually happens and b) they win the election (OK, b)’s pretty much a given). Their opposition (at the leadership level) seems more political and opportunistic than practical. Of course, the membership’s a completely different matter !
Labour’s game plan seems to be to let the Tories take all the unpopular decisions now – and the more the better – and then pray they never have to take any tough decisions for another 5 years.

Stevie K
Stevie K
18 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Spot on reading of the situation. It’s a hell of a lot easier to not get round to removing a controversial policy that to make it happen in the first place.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
19 days ago

May, Barwell and Robbins knew exactly what they were doing in accepting Irish nonsense about the border. It was treason, frankly.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
19 days ago

Robbins, maybe, he was clever enough to get hired by Goldman Sachs. But the idea that geography graduate May or that b**b Barwell were doing anything other than bungling along is fanciful.

AC Harper
AC Harper
18 days ago

May started off well – read the transcript of her Lancaster House speech. But I suspect she was intellectually seduced by her advisers who had different views entirely.

Stevie K
Stevie K
18 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I am very moved by your powerful phrase Seduced by her advisers. It happens a lot and nobody talks about it. That’s one of the reasons annoying, somewhat disagreeable leaders are better at their job, they don’t want to be loved and admired all the time and don’t blow in the wind of media sentiment so much.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
17 days ago

Total unhinged bollocks. You don’t get to define “treason”! The vote to leave the EU was a vote AGAINST being a member, not FOR any particular future settlement. Norway, which “option” Mr Farage used to endlessly promote, is not a member of the EU.

I support Brexit, but unfortunately many of the key Brexiteers were simplistic snake oil charlatans.

Oh, after calling the EU all sorts of names for decades, boo boo they aren’t being nice to us!.Of course they bloody weren’t!

The idea that we were going to in one bound break entirely free of a 40 year old economic and political union was a complete fantasy. And isn’t trade “on WTO terms” also an international treaty imposing certain obligations?

Mike Keohane
Mike Keohane
16 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

There was no 40 year old economic and political union. Back in 1973 the UK entered what was still in substance a trading bloc, albeit the “ever closer union” aspiration in the Treaty of Rome was already driving what has since become the EU towards ever greater integration, and at the time of the UK referendum the EU remained well short of economic let alone political union (EMU by the way actually stands for Economic and Monetary Union). It would have been possible to plot a gradual path out of the UK’s deep entanglement in the EU, post-referendum, had our politicians possessed the requisite will and competence: it seems to me that very few possessed the will and none the competence.

John Tyler
John Tyler
19 days ago

Well written, sir! Hypocrisy never fails to entertain.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
19 days ago

Sky News’s Darren McCaffrey reports that 100 Gardaí (police) officers are being deployed “to prevent people abusing the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK as a means to enter Ireland to claim asylum”.

The author misses a point here. This is a publicity stunt: the border is over 500 km long. So this is one Garda per 5 km.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

The current border is in Dundalk where Garda board buses and trains looking for illegals. The problem now is they don’t just return north but claim international protection so can’t be removed.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
19 days ago

So all of a sudden there is a border on ‘The Island of Ireland’ (cue : smug giggles from EU Irish lapdog during Brexit negotiations).

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
19 days ago

And just like that, borders suddenly matter. What’s next, the value of preserving a native culture? Having a common language? There are few things quite as effective as the slap of reality to shake loose the cobwebs of feel-good ideas.

Liakoura
Liakoura
19 days ago

The Irish border is not in the gift of the EU or the UK as the Good Friday agreement was ratified by the UN and has strict international rules and conditions applying to its use.
Here’s Rees Moggs’ European Research Group paper on the border:
‘A “hard” border after Brexit between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is totally undesirable, which is why no one is arguing for new infrastructure at the border; not the UK, nor the EU, nor the Republic of Ireland.’
A revised edition could also have included ‘nor the United Nations’.
https://www.scribd.com/document/388422435/European-Research-Group-plans-for-Irish-border-and-Brexit
Could anything be more clear about the complete agreement of the three parties involved?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
19 days ago
Reply to  Liakoura

But a hard border was never envisaged at all…a digital electronic one for goods was the right answer.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago

Should have called their bluff in 2016 and put in a hard border. Seems like they actually want one now.
What utterly pathetic hypocrites the Irish government are.

Tom Scott
Tom Scott
19 days ago

This a simple ploy by the Irish government to sway attention from the awful situation they have created to allow masses of migrants to enter the country.
Even after his demise, the legacy of Varadkar continues to pervade Irish politics.

Hopefully, the Irish people will not be fooled by this.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago

Yep something in the inconsistency of the Irish position. Posturing and point scoring on either side though not going to solve this.
Is not the key issue that asylum seekers seem able to disappear and go wherever they please in the UK? As Home Office admitted, it can’t currently locate all of those here awaiting assessment and just won’t have the resource and capability to do so. Now whilst some may have hopped across the Irish sea the vast majority have probably disappeared into the black economy. And probably Rwanda has prompted more of that than the Ireland option. We simply don’t know do we. Whether Rwanda has the impact hoped or not our whole approach will still have massive gaps, probably because our politicians been more interested in slogans and rhetoric than nitty gritty detail and grip.
Said it before, we need to move rapidly to ID cards and get our heads around that quickly. Those of us voting today need show ID.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
19 days ago

What a load of Brexiteer waffle. I’ve not seen such wilful misunderstanding of the issues around Brexit in a while.
What Henry fails to appreciate (like most English Brexiteers) is that the protocol isn’t primarily about politics but about food – his food actually.
I’m a farmer in Northern Ireland, so I understand the integrated nature of food production on this island. That integration happened gradually over 25+ years from the creation of the EU single market until Brexit.
What he also fails to appreciate is that it’s actually his food.
The total population of Ireland is around 5.5M. We produce enough food to feed 35M. Most of it goes to England.

As for the issues around small boats. This has only happened since Brexit. How ironic, given their whole mantra was ‘take back control’

The UK & Ireland have had common travel agreements for a long time & it was agreed these would remain despite the challenges of Brexit.
Now we have Rishi Sunak, desperate to show that his Rwanda plan is working, saying he’ll renege on that agreement.
Typically for a Brexiteer though, Henry wants to blame everyone else.
How predictable

R Wright
R Wright
18 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

I look forward to you having migrants squatting on your farm.

Jerry K
Jerry K
19 days ago

As someone said – we need (biometric) id cards. Also welfare rules that are more like those in some other EU countries as well as a proper clampdown on the black economy (oops grey, or economy of colour!)
Incidentally it always amazes me that many people not only work in the black economy, but also claim welfare at the same time! No government seems bothered enough to act, but all pay lip service to closing avoidance loopholes for those who do actually pay tax. Hypocrisy rules ok

Ken Bowman
Ken Bowman
18 days ago
Reply to  Jerry K

About 50 years ago in order to claim unemployment benefit you needed to present in person on a given day.
A friend who was engaged in refurbishing old properties in London said that while the project was generally being busily progressed not so on benefit day. On that day he worked alone.

Ken Bowman
Ken Bowman
18 days ago
Reply to  Ken Bowman

More recently I was told that the two persons (Egyption I seem to recall) who were engaged in “de denting” old cars in England claimed there unemployment benefit in The Netherlands. My informant seemed knowledgeable.

AC Harper
AC Harper
19 days ago

Does the Republic of Ireland policing the border (even just a little) mean that we can walk away from the Agreement?

Matt B
Matt B
15 days ago

Why does te CTA still exist given Ireland’s clear antipathy to the UK while pursuing grievance and trade agendas for its EU and US agenda-setters? The special relationship between the US and Ireland could favour a CTA over the Atlantic instead?