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Why Northern Ireland rejected the Rwanda plan

'When will the planes take off?' Credit: Getty

May 14, 2024 - 10:00am

Yesterday’s Northern Ireland High Court decision to strike down substantial parts of Rishi Sunak’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda should not be viewed purely through the politics of migration. Rather, it has far more to do with the difficulties of managing a region where the UK has de facto ceded a significant degree of sovereignty.

The court found that key aspects of the Rwanda plan conflict with the Good Friday Agreement, the European Convention on Human Rights and, most damagingly for Sunak, the Windsor Framework he signed with the EU in February 2023 to resolve post-Brexit issues around the Irish border.

The government had claimed — for example in its “Safeguarding the Union” paper published this January, which enabled the region’s largest pro-British party, the DUP, to return to power-sharing — that the Windsor Framework applied only to trade in goods, and that immigration policy was “entirely untouched by it”.

Courts, reading across multiple pieces of legislation, often come to conclusions which lawmakers find unwelcome, and the government will appeal. Whatever happens, it will not change the reality that agreements made with the EU on harmonisation to keep the Irish border open and unguarded may become less palatable to either party over time as legislative frameworks, and facts on the ground, change.

One new factor at play is the increasing hostility to exceptionally high levels of immigration to the Republic in recent years, which has exacerbated a seemingly insoluble housing crisis and driven the emergence of tent cities. Protests and even riots have taken place regularly over the last six months. As a result, the government in Dublin, which long argued that an open border was a necessary prophylactic to avoid a return to political violence, has in recent weeks announced that it is considering removing asylum seekers arriving from the UK to Northern Ireland.

These major protests have not yet spread to Northern Ireland. Despite a surge in the African and Asian population since the pandemic, lower wages have meant that the influx has been much less dramatic than in England or the Republic, and lower rents have kept public attitudes more relaxed. While there has been some anti-immigration sentiment from the Unionist Right over the years, almost the entire nationalist political class has been bullishly pro-immigration in the manner of the Scottish Nationalist Party. Yet both Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have so far maintained a radio silence on the High Court decision.

There is, however, no guarantee that nationalist acceptance will continue. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which government decisions in both London and Dublin create a surge of migrants seeking a safe haven thanks to Northern Ireland’s expansive human rights provisions and activist courts. If that happened, it’s equally easy to imagine it generating an angry working-class backlash outflanking the political class, as it has in the Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Those in Northern Ireland celebrating this decision as a victory for a liberal immigration policy in the region should be careful what they wish for.

In the short term, Sunak’s government will appeal this decision. Beyond that, however, it seems increasingly possible that the UK, likely under a Labour government, will face an invidious choice between putting checks on the Irish border or losing control of immigration policy altogether.


Gerry Lynch was Executive Director of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 2007-10 and is now a country parson in Wiltshire.

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Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago

What an absolute **** show devolution has been.
How is it possible for a court in Northern Ireland to attempt to override decisions and court judgements by the superior courts and parliament of the UK on matters which apply to the UK as a whole ?
All this is doing is wasting a huge amount of time and resources and keeping lawyers from doing meaningful work on other cases.
Meanwhile, we’ll be told over and over again how the government is “underfunding” the legal system.
Waste on waste.

R Wright
R Wright
4 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

It isn’t devolution. It is the Human Rights Act. You can thank Tony Blair for both.

j watson
j watson
4 days ago

So for now Asylum seekers just need to get to NI and they avoid potentially being deported to Rwanda. They’ve no need to cross to the South, although they may anyway.
Well it might give the remaining sectarians in NI something to unify around.
More broadly the whole thing highlights asylum seekers seem free to roam wherever they want within the UK. Of course housing them in a few set locations has become impossible because of the numbers and the backlog, so no chance of knowing where they all are. Of course if they disappear they may void any claim to refugee status, but many will take that chance if they fear deportation to Rwanda. So was always a likely consequence of this policy, initially at least. They’ll then seek work in black market and will undoubtedly be subject to abuse and criminality. If desperate, abused people then turn to desperate actions we should not be surprised.
It is a v difficult challenge all round. No simple answers exist. Were it poss to take out most of the smugglers we’d stem the tide, but it’s not clear we’ve invested sufficiently in that nor worked in partnership as closely with European partners as we are inevitably going to need to.
I’d certainly move quickly on National ID cards but that alone just helps us better manage some of the consequences and isn’t a full solution.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Not sure why you blithely assume all these people are “asylum seekers”. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are certainly not legitimate asylum seekers. And they are doing no favours to those who genuinely are.
If people choose to knowingly come here illegally, they must wear the consequences. We should prioritise our own scarce resources for our own legal, tax-paying citizens. We are not a charity.
It’s no good hiding behind this “it’s all too difficult” defence. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. It is primarily a question of It doesn’t need “investment” or “partners”. It needs determination. And stopping the pretence that we can (and should) be aiming for perfect decisions in asylum cases. We don’t make perfect decisions anywhere else – we make the best we can with the time and information available. We need to say “right, we’re going to make a decision in all cases in x days with a maximum budget per person of £y”. And then just do it.

j watson
j watson
4 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

You’d have thought by now folks would have clicked rants don’t get us v far. Invective way out ahead of intelligence arguably why we have so many probs.
Determination and do what exactly?
I’m all for returning failed ASs and it being a high bar to prove real threat in home country. I’m also sure some are more economic migrants than fleeing real threat and so will need to be returned. But we need focus much more on good processing and return deals. I don’t even have much prob with off-shoring if done humanely and well. I think removing vast majority of avenues to claim asylum abroad inevitable helps the smugglers.
Where we might agree is currently we do nothing v well and it creates a series of predictable consequences.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Oh jw, have you ever taken your left-looking blinkers off for a moment to ask yourself: why don’t genuine asylum seekers just stay in France, or any other EU state? They’re perfectly safe there.

j watson
j watson
4 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Vast majority do of course and we have a dribble of a problem compared to many other states.
But as you ask because i) they have some English and prefer a place where they can use it ii) we don’t have ID cards whereas French do iii) they aren’t obliged to and we removed ourselves from the Treaty that meant we could send them back to first point of enter into EU iv) why would the French or others stop them if removed some burden on them – in fact it’s a wonder they don’t encourage it more.
We probably can’t do much about the first. But the second and third decisions we’ve made all on our own. The fourth we need to tread carefully.
Now if 90% prove to be econ migrants etc then just process and return them. Or maybe open a few claim centres abroad and stop the necessity of a boat crossing.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  j watson

That wasn’t a rant ! But I can put one together if you insist …

R Wright
R Wright
4 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Why is it every single post you put out here reeks of the lowest form of national self-loathing? I have held my tongue for some time over the subject but thought it worth raising now.

j watson
j watson
4 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

National embarrassment would be better description. In fact I’d make the reverse claim. It’s because I value the reputation of my Country, and our strategic position in the World, I find some of the twaddle spouted by folks like yourself on subjects like this massively self defeating and self wounding.
We can handle such a problem much better and maintain our best values which I would strongly contend I cherish and potentially understand far more than yourself.

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
4 days ago

I presume the open border in Northern Ireland can work both ways.
I am surprised that people traffickers are not moving people from France to the ROI by ferry before bussing them over the border into the UK.
Or are there restrictions on the border between ROI and France? Surely, not? Wasn’t this the whole basis of the EU’s insistence on a ‘Border in the Irish Sea’?

Gerry Lynch
Gerry Lynch
4 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Carr

While there are no restrictions on the flow of goods between France and the RoI, people moving between them need to have correct travel documents and, if necessary, visas: the RoI is not a member of the Schengen Area being, along with the UK, a member of the Common Travel Area instead.

So, nope.

R Wright
R Wright
4 days ago

I am satisfied with the NI decision. They were too white as it is. They definitely need some enrichment if they are to be like the rest of the UK. Diversity is our strength, after all.

Edit: In seriousness though, HM Government would be insane not to appeal this precedent to the CoA. The judgement cuts to the very core of the sovereignty of Parliament and the impact of the ECtHR.

David Giles
David Giles
4 days ago

So the courts are now saying that, to uphold the Good Friday Agreements and the Windsor Agreement, the UK government is duty bound to take steps to firm up the border when it suits the Irish government!

I wonder, what are the responsibilities of the Irish government and are those responsibilities in any way… manifest. i.e. real?

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
4 days ago

One of the more painful lessons the West is in general learning, albeit slowly, is that you can have open borders for immigration, OR a welfare state.
Pick one.
The Republic won’t want to support large populations of people who need expensive services. Eventually, NI will learn that it doesn’t really want them, either.

Matt M
Matt M
4 days ago

The Rwanda scheme is the best piece of legislation ever crafted:
1.Flights haven’t yet started and already illegals are fleeing the country
2.It will force the Irish to build the same “invisible” north/south border that Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Davis proposed 6 years ago.
3.In return for preventing illegals crossing the north/south border or agreeing to them being returned, we will get the customs border returned to its rightful place.
4.It has dished Sinn Fein, now widely seen as traitors by the Irish working class and dented their chances of being elected on both sides of the border.
5.It may eventually be the casus belli for us leaving the ECHR and restoring full sovereignty to the UK.
6.It may lead to a rapprochement between Westminster and Dublin when they finally request that we give their illegals seats on our flights.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
4 days ago

If the DUP wants more Evangelical Protestants, then it ought to be bringing in planeloads from Africa.