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Mary Lou McDonald
Dáil chamber

Opposition rounds on government 'incompetence' in row with UK over return of migrants

Mary Lou McDonald said the Government’s “incompetence is off the charts”.

THE LEADERS OF Sinn Féin and Labour have both called for clarity on the agreement that exists between Ireland and the UK to send back people seeking asylum in Ireland who have arrived from the UK. 

Mary Lou McDonald told Taoiseach Simon Harris today that his Government has “displayed incredible incompetence in recent days in dealing with migration and returns to Britain”.

Her comments come amid an ongoing diplomatic row with the UK over migration, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday saying he is “not interested” in pursuing a deal with Dublin.

This came after it was announced by Justice Minister Helen McEntee that she is drafting legislation to designate the UK as a safe country again in order to return asylum seekers who have crossed the border into the Republic from Northern Ireland.

A spokesperson for Sunak said today that while there is an existing operational agreement with the Irish Government regarding the common travel area, there is no legal obligation on the UK to accept the return of asylum seekers. 

“It’s up to the UK government who we do and do not accept into the country,” the spokesperson said.

McDonald asked the Taoiseach to clarify today whether an agreement exists with the UK or not. 

She also criticised the Government over contradictory statements from Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Tánaiste Micheál Martin in relation to the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland who have entered the country from Northern Ireland. 

Yesterday, the Tánaiste said that a claim by McEntee that 80% of asylum seekers in Ireland had come across the border is “not statistical”.

“We have a situation of confusion in Government. Contradiction and chaos between the Minister for Justice and the Tánaiste. Which of them if either are speaking correctly, Taoiseach?,” McDonald asked. 

She added: “But not satisfied with that, you’ve actually managed to spread this confusion now between two governments about an agreement which exists or does not exist, which is it Taoiseach?”

Meanwhile, Labour leader Ivana Bacik also asked for further clarity on the agreement with the UK and raised concerns about sending people seeking asylum back to the UK in light of its Rwanda policy. 

“You say an operational arrangement is in place with Britain, but what is it?,” Bacik asked. 

In response to McDonald’s questions, Taoiseach Simon Harris said an agreement relating to the Common Travel Area was put in place with the UK after it left the EU in 2020. 

He said the UK Government confirmed today that as part of this an “operations agreement” was put in place for “migrants or refugees to be returned in both directions”.

The Taoiseach continued: “It’s also true to say that in March, our High Court made a ruling which said that there wasn’t an adequate legislative basis for this. And the Minister for Justice has moved very swiftly and with the full support of all members of Government to clarify that and to close what I’ve described as a legal loophole.”

He added:

I have no intention whatsoever of this country being dragged in to politics in Britain.

 On the contradiction around the 80% figure, Harris said:

“As you know, and I presume your support, we have an open border. People come back and forth over the border that’s invaluable for peace and prosperity on the island. But it’s also important we listen to people on the front line.

“It’s important that we listen to the men and women working in the IPO, in the international protection office, who tell the Minister who then has the good forum to tell this house and a committee that they’ve seen a very significant increase in the number of people who’ve arrived seeking protection and have come from the UK.” 

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