Irish premier says ‘of course’ police will not be sent to NI border

The Irish premier has reiterated his Government’s position that police will not be sent to the Northern Ireland border amid an ongoing diplomatic row which saw UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seeking “urgent clarification” on the matter.

Diplomatic tensions between London and Dublin have increased in recent days after Ireland’s justice minister claimed there had been an upsurge in asylum seekers crossing the border following the passing of the UK’s Safety of Rwanda Act.

On Tuesday, the Irish Government said 100 police officers would be made available for frontline immigration enforcement duties, although Dublin insisted they would not be “assigned to physically police the border with Northern Ireland”.

On Wednesday, Mr Sunak urged the Irish Government not to send police into border areas following a dispute about asylum seekers crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic.

He said the Irish Government “must uphold its promises” to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and avoid setting up checkpoints to prevent asylum seekers entering the country.

Answering questions in the Commons, Mr Sunak said ministers were seeking “urgent clarification that there will be no disruption or police checkpoints at or near the border”, and that there must not be “cherry-picking of important international agreements”.

He added: “Now, it’s no surprise that our robust approach to illegal migration is providing a deterrent but the answer is not sending police to villages in Donegal. It’s to work with us in partnership to strengthen our external borders all around the common travel area that we share.”

Asked about Mr Sunak’s comments, Irish premier Simon Harris reiterated that no gardai (Irish police) will be sent to border areas, saying: “Of course there won’t be.”

Speaking in Dublin on Wednesday, the Taoiseach said he had “no idea” if the UK had directly sought clarification from his Government on whether there would be checkpoints on the border.

Both governments have acknowledged the existence of an “operational agreement” which provides for the reciprocal return of asylum seekers between the UK and Ireland, but Downing Street has said it contains no legal obligations to accept them.

The Prime Minister said he was “not interested” in a returns deal if the European Union did not allow the UK to send back asylum seekers who had crossed the English Channel from France.

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Rishi Sunak said there must be ‘no cherry-picking of important international agreements’ (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Harris, who pointed out that there were upcoming elections in the UK, stressed the “importance of countries upholding agreements”.

He said: “I’m not getting involved in British politics and I’m very well aware there is local elections due in the UK tomorrow, and I’ve no interest as Taoiseach of this country of being involved in day to day back and forth in the House of Commons.

“What I do have an interest in is agreements. Agreements between two countries and I very much welcome the British Prime Minister’s comments in relation to the importance of countries upholding agreements. We’ll uphold the agreement we have with Britain under the common travel area, the standard operating procedure that we have in place.

“I also welcome the comments of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, where he referred to the importance of the two countries working together to protect the common travel area from abuses.

“Regularising our laws in relation to the arrangement we have with Britain is only one of a number of things we intend to do to ensure we have a firm, effective migration system.”

Mr Sunak’s comments came in response to a question from DUP MP Carla Lockhart, who accused the Irish Government of “hypocrisy” given its stance on the border during Brexit negotiations.

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Tents housing asylum seekers near to the Office of International Protection in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Asked about the diplomatic dispute, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Harris had provided Mr Sunak’s Government with a “propaganda coup” in the run-up to elections.

Speaking to Irish national broadcaster RTE, she added: “It’s never a good place for the Irish Government to be scoffed and laughed at in the House of Commons.”

Downing Street has repeatedly stressed that the UK is under no legal obligation to accept returns of asylum seekers from Ireland, and would not do so while France continued to refuse to accept returns from the UK.

There is an operational agreement on the common travel area with Ireland which Dublin says provides for returning asylum seekers, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said this was not legally binding and nobody had been returned to the UK under its terms.

One person has been returned to Ireland under the agreement since it was signed four years ago, the spokesman added.

On Wednesday, the spokesman said: “We obviously work with them on a range of issues, including in relation to security issues in the common travel area, but the UK has no obligation to accept returns.”

Labour said it agreed with the Government that the UK should not accept returns from Ireland “while Britain is not able to return people who arrive here from the EU”.

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Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee said there had been an upsurge in asylum seekers crossing the border following the passing of the UK’s Safety of Rwanda Act (Liam McBurney/PA)

The UK Government has claimed the reported increase in asylum seekers entering Ireland from Northern Ireland demonstrated that its Rwanda scheme was already acting as a deterrent.

Irish deputy prime minister Micheal Martin has previously said justice minister Helen McEntee’s figure of 80% of total border crossings was not “evidence-based” while DUP MP Ian Paisley told the Commons it was “made up”.

It is not clear how many asylum seekers have cross from Northern Ireland into the Republic, with Downing Street saying it did not have that data as the border is not policed.

A spokesman for the Irish premier said that no call or meeting has been scheduled for Mr Sunak and Mr Harris to discuss the matter.