Northern Ireland

Analysis: Low key taoiseach avoids difficult questions on inaugural venture north

Simon Harris’s first visit to Norther Ireland since succeeding Leo Varadkar is overshadowed by the ongoing row with the UK government

Taoiseach Simon Harris with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, during a press conference outside Stormont Castle
Taoiseach Simon Harris with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

There was a rather inauspicious start to Simon Harris’s first trip north as taoiseach. As his small motorcade rolled up to Stormont Castle’s grand entrance on Friday morning, there was no-one there to meet the Fine Gael leader, who was arriving for a pre-arranged engagement with the first and deputy first ministers.

The clumsy choreography issue was finally resolved after the toaoiseach entered the building and re-emerged with Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, who undertook a round of handshakes for the benefit of the assembled cameras, before being joined by Junior Ministers Aisling Reilly and Pam Cameron.

On the agenda for the subsequent 55-minute meeting inside were areas of north-south collaboration and partnership, including those projects earmarked for Shared Island funding, such as the A5 upgrade and Narrow Water Bridge.

Taoiseach Simon Harris promised a migration system that is ‘fair, firm and enforced’
Taoiseach Simon Harris at Stormont Castle. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

Devolution and its stability would ordinarily be the main talking point but overshadowing proceedings was the ongoing row between the Irish and British governments over migration, with the former blaming the latter’s Rwanda deportation policy on an apparent surge in the number of people claiming asylum in the Republic.

On Thursday night, a small group of people holding anti-immigration placards staged a protest outside Mr Harris’s Co Wicklow home.

At the press conference following the meeting with Stormont’s leaders, the taoiseach was prepared to field only three questions from the more than 20 journalists who’d gathered to cover his visit, which coincided with World Press Freedom Day. All questions related to matters concerning migration or its ramifications, which are dominating the southern news agenda .

An offer made to the Irish government by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, via the pages of the Daily Telegraph, to join the UK’s controversial Rwanda scheme was the hottest topic for discussion, a proposal derided and dismissed by Mr Harris. Other questions related to the appearance of what looked like far-right activists outside the taoiseach’s home and the dismantling of a makeshift migrant camp in Dublin city centre on Wednesday.

Stormont was effectively mentioned in passing, its restoration three months ago welcomed but little more said.

As inaugural taoiseach’s visits go, the proceedings were all rather low key, which given the history of such events in the past, is perhaps something of a blessing.

Yet there was also a sense that Mr Harris was reluctant to engage on matters relating to Northern Ireland. This meeting was all about the optics and re-emphasising his seeming desire to be a hands-off taoiseach when it comes to matters north of the border.

On the evidence of this visit, the incumbent lacks Leo Varakar’s flair and Michaél Martin’s statesmanship, and with an election looming in the south, it’s possible we may not see much more of this particular taoiseach on such ventures north. It’s moot whether anybody up here would be overly concerned.