Brian Feeney: Sea border will be only solution to migration problem

Britain and Ireland will have to come to an agreement recognising new realities of movement of people across Europe

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Tents have been pitched by asylum seekers along a stretch of the Grand Canal, Dublin, near to the International Protection Office
Tents pitched by asylum seekers along a stretch of the Grand Canal, Dublin, near to the International Protection Office (Niall Carson/PA)

Sixteen days from now, on June 7, voters in the Republic go to the polls to elect nearly 1,000 councillors and 14 MEPs in three enormous constituencies.

Since the British government, aided by their DUP dupes, dragged the north out of the EU we will be spectators as in the upcoming British general election, not being part of Britain or electing anyone from a British party. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by the results of the Euro election or the later British one.

In their previous outing in 2019, Sinn Féin had an awful election both at council and European Parliament. This time, if opinion polls are correct, the party will make substantial gains, doubling the number of council seats and gaining three, possibly four seats in Brussels.

Much will depend on transfers since there are 73 candidates for the 14 seats, the great majority of them currently polling between 1% and 5%.

The issue rising rapidly to prominence which will affect both council and EU seats is the migration crisis; and no party will be affected more than Sinn Féin.

Polls show repeatedly that SF supporters and independents (many of whom are far right) want to hear candidates giving off about immigration. The overwhelming majority of Sinn Féin supporters want a tougher line both on borders and on deportations, a trend in opinion that is shared across other parties too but not as trenchantly.

Claims that the majority of asylum seekers entering Ireland had crossed the border from Northern Ireland have been questioned by human rights and refugee organisations
Half of voters in the Republic, including a majority of Sinn Féin supporters, want checkpoints on the border to limit the number of asylum seekers coming from the north, according to a recent opinion poll (Brian Lawless/PA)

SF’s young voters, those in urban districts and less well off, are most hostile to migrants perhaps because they see them as competitors for accommodation and jobs. So far the party hasn’t been able to provide answers to these questions which have suddenly become burning.

The Republic has changed rapidly in the last decade as migration has developed into the present crisis, with a sudden acceleration after the arrival of over 100,000 Ukrainians in 2022 requiring urgent help.

The increased visibility of migrants also plays a part. Rural districts have changed noticeably. Migrants have often been located in places depopulated by emigration like Mayo. As a result, a quarter of the population of Ballyhaunis is Muslim and half the town’s population was born outside Ireland. In Castlebar, nearly 4,000 of the town’s 13,000 inhabitants were born outside Ireland.

However, Ireland is far from unique. All across the EU migration has become a problem and is helping drive politics to the right.

French far-right leader Marine le Pen
French far-right leader Marine le Pen

The results of the European Parliament elections will dramatically change the complexion of that assembly. Marine Le Pen’s party will win most seats in France, while Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy will top the poll there – at present she is sitting on 28%, with the previously dominant right-wing Forza Italia and Lega on 9%.

The same scenario prevails across most of the EU, from the Netherlands to Slovakia. With these right-wing parties dominant in the European Parliament, it’s likely the EU will adopt a much harsher line on migration. Indeed, a majority of EU states is already reacting to the wind of change, erecting their own border controls, ditching Schengen and agitating for a policy similar to Britain’s, the ability to deport migrants to a third country.

What is obvious is that you can’t have two different migration policies on this borderless island. Fintan O’Toole points out that the entire Garda Síochana, Irish Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and Legion of Mary couldn’t cover the 208 known crossing points (never mind the unknown ones) – more than the entire eastern border of the EU has.

John O’Dowd met police to discuss road safety issues
There are 208 known border crossing points in Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Brexit negotiations revealed Ireland has 15 official crossing points, where there were 43 million private vehicle, 900,000 coach passenger and 870,000 train passenger crossings in 2016.

What is also obvious to everyone outside this British government is that Rishi Sunak’s Illegal Migration Act and Rwanda Act will be struck down in Britain’s courts and that when he loses the election, the legislation will be repealed, leaving Rwanda £450 million to the good.

What is obvious is that you can’t have two different migration policies on this borderless island

In the end Britain and Ireland will have to come to a settlement of the matter which, to the horror of the DUP, will involve a sea border.

You see, if you have a borderless island and a Common Travel Area (CTA), people can travel north-south and east-west, so there’d be nothing to stop successful asylum seekers in Ireland travelling to England, or to the north and then to England.

If you’ve got a CTA you’ve got to have the same migration policies. That’s why Ireland isn’t in Schengen. The solution is British-Irish negotiations to address new circumstances.