Newton Emerson: British and Irish governments cynically weaponising border in immigration row

Irish News columnist Newton Emerson offers his inimitable take on the week’s big news stories...

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Tanaiste Micheal Martin during the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference press conference
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris and Tánaiste Micheál Martin appeared together at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference this week (Yui Mok/PA)

The reckless cynicism of the British and Irish governments over the past week can be of no comfort to anyone in Northern Ireland.

To distract from its failures on immigration, Dublin made a claim about migrants crossing the border that it later admitted it could not substantiate.

London initially dismissed the claim, then embraced it after realising it made the Rwanda scheme sound successful. Rhetoric has since escalated into a dark parody of Brexit, with each country trying to stir public sentiment against the other.

The encampment was dismantled on Wednesday
Tents used by asylum seekers in Dublin city centre were removed this week (Niall Carson/PA)

England and Wales had local elections on Thursday; the Republic has local and European elections next month. That clearly matters more to both governments than the stability of a freshly-restored Stormont or the interests of Northern Ireland in general.

Long-term harm may have been caused to the Common Travel Area, even if a Labour government abolishes the Rwanda scheme. The CTA requires low-key but close cooperation between the UK and Ireland on immigration.

Populist weaponising of the border on immigration obviously undermines this – and it is unlikely to be forgotten the moment the ballots are counted.

England and Wales had local elections on Thursday; the Republic has local and European elections next month. That clearly matters more to both governments than the stability of a freshly-restored Stormont or the interests of Northern Ireland in general


Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn has explained how a Labour government will repeal and replace the Legacy Act, whose main sections came into effect this week.

Speaking to The Irish News, he vowed to lift the ban on inquests and civil cases and remove the conditional immunity provision (already struck down by the courts) but keep the act’s truth recovery body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery.

Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn
Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

As Benn noted, this would effectively bring us back to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which largely repeated the 2013 Haass report, which in turn largely repeated the 2009 Eames-Bradley report. Stormont House was restated in the 2015 Fresh Start and 2020 New Decade, New Approach deals.

Had we moved directly to implementing Stormont House it would have been seen as a success. It should also be complete by now: its investigations were to run for five years from 2016.

Getting there via the Legacy Act risks needless contention but perhaps this was the only way forward. Stormont and the British and Irish governments have been agreeing and re-agreeing the same deal for over a decade, then leaving it sitting on the shelf.


The UK Covid inquiry has begun its Northern Ireland hearings and uncovered failings familiar from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal: ministers and officials deleting their communications and editing or failing to keep records of meetings. A timeline reveals just how resistant Stormont is to learning lessons.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry logo
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is holding hearings in Belfast (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Better record-keeping due to RHI was a central requirement of New Decade, New Approach, which restored devolution in January 2020. The RHI inquiry reported in March 2020 with the same recommendations, which were accepted by the executive. The executive began working on a plan to implement the recommendations in July 2020 and published it in October 2021.

This all coincided with the pandemic. Ministers and officials were ignoring the lessons of RHI and pretending to learn them at exactly the same time.


The SDLP must be deeply concerned about leader Colum Eastwood’s Foyle seat in the general election. That would explain its mishandling of the appointment of Cllr Lilian Seenoi-Barr as mayor of Derry and Strabane.

Lilian Seenoi-Barr, SDLP councillor for Foyleside. Picture by Mal MCann.
SDLP councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr is to become the north's first black mayor. Picture: Mal MCann.

A selection contest was opened, then the other two applicants were excluded without explanation. Both protested against the leadership for ditching party democracy and have quit to sit as independents.

Seenoi-Barr, who will be Northern Ireland’s first black mayor, has been needlessly exposed to accusations of favouritism. All this damage has been caused by trying to ensure a pre-election good news story.


Translink has opened the new York Street train station in Belfast, rebuilt at a cost of £17 million. It is a major improvement and a positive investment in the area. Sinn Féin infrastructure minister John O’Dowd said he hopes it will spark regeneration as well as increased use of public transport.

The new York Street Train Station in North Belfast which is scheduled for opening at the end of next month, with completion of public realm works at the station finishing up in November. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
The new York Street train station in north Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

However, it remains bizarrely isolated from its surroundings by a forbidding road system and a mish-mash of pedestrian crossings. The Department for Infrastructure, which is responsible for Translink, is also responsible for the roads and crossings, yet it will do nothing about them. So much for joined-up government.

A large part of the station’s business case is serving the new Ulster University campus, 750 metres and 12 pedestrian crossings away. There was a time when students might have been expected to take some direct action on this issue. Alas, as noted here before, young people today are just so disappointingly well behaved.


The project to rebuild the Dundonald Ice Bowl has been downsized due to a change of contractor and rising costs. The new building will now be without an adventure play area, which presumably means the end of ‘Indiana Land’, a pioneering amenity when it opened in 1987 and still a much-loved institution.

An artist's impression of the redeveloped Dundonald Ice Bowl.
An artist's impression of a redeveloped Dundonald Ice Bowl

The Ice Bowl has been lucky to get away with almost appropriating a Hollywood brand. Policing of such trademarks is normally ruthless. Lucasfilm, owner of the Indiana Jones franchise, sued a small software company in 1988 just for calling a program “Templates of Doom”.


The assembly has endorsed an EU pet food regulation becoming law in Northern Ireland, using one of the ‘Stormont brake’ mechanisms the government granted to the DUP. The regulation has no practical effect and the DUP can justifiably claim the mechanism provides some democratic oversight, yet eight of its 25 MLAs still abstained – an ominous portent for the leadership.

There could be more pet trouble ahead for all parties. A sea border grace period for veterinary medicine runs out at the end of next year. Vets and farmers are becoming alarmed at the lack of progress on a resolution.

A sign on a lamp post outside Larne Port with the word No Irish Sea Border
A sea border grace period for veterinary medicine runs out at the end of next year (Liam McBurney/PA)

Half the medicines affected are for livestock and hence underpin human health. The other half are for pets, a fact not widely appreciated. As with the human medicines sea border, a blockade of supplies is unthinkable but there will be grandstanding and brinkmanship before the inevitable deal is done.

So – who at Stormont will stand up for Brussels killing your dog?