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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking in London today. Alamy Stock Photo
diplomatic spat

Migration row: Sunak 'not interested' in deal to return asylum seekers from Ireland to the UK

The row has overshadowed the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference taking place in London today


UK PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak has said he is “not interested” in pursuing a deal with Dublin on returning asylum seekers from Ireland to the UK.

Sunak’s comments come amid ratcheting tensions between the two governments over asylum seekers entering the Republic via Northern Ireland and a pledge by Taoiseach Simon Harris to pass emergency legislation to return them to the UK. 

Speaking today, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said that “a reciprocal agreement” would be required to send people back to the UK.

The row has overshadowed the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC) taking place in London today, with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris saying the UK government did not want to “upset” its Irish neighbours.

Speaking over the weekend, the Taoiseach said that he does not intend for Ireland to be “a loophole” for other countries’ “immigration challenges” and that legislation would be brought to Cabinet to deal with the issue. 

The growing Ireland-UK row over migration was sparked after Justice Minister Helen McEntee told an Oireachtas committee last week that over 80% of asylum seekers who come to the Republic enter via Northern Ireland.

Asked about the row today and about efforts by the Irish government to reverse the trend, Sunak said: 

We’re not interested in that. We’re not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU doesn’t accept returns back to France where illegal migrants are coming from. 

“Of course we’re not going to do that.”

Asked whether there were any negotiations with the EU on returns, Sunak said: “No, I’m focused on getting our Rwanda scheme up and running.” 

Last night it emerged that a planned meeting between McEntee and her UK counterpart, Home Secretary James Cleverly, was cancelled as the row over migration escalated.

An Irish government spokesperson said late last night that the planned meeting for today “has been postponed and will be rescheduled in the near future”. 

The front page of the Monday edition of the Daily Telegraph reports that the meeting was cancelled by Cleverly, who cited “a diary clash”. 

minister-for-justice-helen-mcentee-speaks-to-the-media-ahead-of-citizenship-ceremonies-for-more-than-6000-people-at-the-convention-centre-in-dublin-picture-date-monday-december-18-2023 Minister for Justice Helen McEntee. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

McEntee was also scheduled to take part in today’s BIIGC but instead decided not to travel.

A spokesperson for the Justice Minister said that she will instead be “meeting senior officials in Dublin” and that she “looks forward to her meeting with the Home Secretary being rescheduled soon”.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin did travel for the BIIGC and is co-chair the meeting alongside UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris. 

Speaking at the BIIGC, Heaton-Harris insisted the UK Government did not want to “upset” its Irish neighbours.

At a joint press conference with the Tánaiste, Heaton-Harris said: “We know this is a very important matter for the British people and we intend to deliver on it.

There is no way that we would want to upset our relationship with Ireland in this space.

There was a “joint commitment to protect the common travel area from abuse”, he added.

Martin said: “These agreements have to be mutual. No one country can say we are sending (people) back if there’s not a reciprocal agreement, and it works both ways.”


Heaton-Harris suggested the issue of asylum seekers crossing to the Republic of Ireland was an indication the UK’s Rwanda scheme was already working as a deterrent.

At a joint press conference Martin in Westminster, Heaton-Harris said: “The UK’s new deterrent is clearly working and having some impact already.

An impact that will obviously increase as the first flights take off for Rwanda.

Heaton-Harris’s comments echoed those shared by Sunak over the weekend when he told Sky News that migrants crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic showed that his government’s Rwanda deportation plan was having the desired deterrent effect.

It was in response to this that the Taoiseach pledged that emergency legislation would be brought to Cabinet this week which would allow International Protection applicants be sent back to the UK. 

This has sparked anger in London, however, with one UK government minister telling the Daily Telegraph that this was a “non-starter” because the UK is not able to send asylum seekers who have crossed the English Channel back to France. 

Prior to to the postponement of today’s meeting between McEntee and Cleverly, it’s understood that Irish officials had hoped to build on cooperation between the Department of Justice and the UK’s Home Office, as well as operational cooperation between the Gardaí and the PSNI

McEntee said last week that she has been engaging An Garda Síochána and that the Garda National Immigration Bureau has been working closely with the PSNI. 

There were reports over the weekend that gardaí are carrying out checks on cars and pubic transport coming from Northern Ireland but precise details of these efforts are not clear.

The emergency legislation McEntee’s department has been drafting is due to be presented to government ministers tomorrow. 

- With reporting by Christina Finn, David McRedmond and Press Association

Need more clarity and context on how migration is being discussed in Ireland? Check out our new FactCheck Knowledge Bank for essential reads and guides to finding good information online.

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