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1 May 2024

Ireland can’t blame its anti-immigrant problem on Rishi Sunak

The sudden arrival of European-style populism in Irish politics is the result of 13 years of government complacency.

By Finn McRedmond

After years of bickering it seemed as though Ireland and the UK were ready to be friends again. The Windsor framework resolved the post-Brexit instability in Northern Ireland, and the former taoiseach Leo Varadkar was no longer viewed as an enemy in Whitehall – the worst of the Brexit years were behind them. Finally, time to breathe a sigh of relief. The future looked bright.

Unfortunately, these sunlit diplomatic uplands were just a mirage. The Anglo-Irish relationship has found another point of strain in the migrant crisis, and the true extent of the damage it sustained since 2016 has been revealed. These oldest and closest neighbours have, once again, turned on one other.

It started on 23 April when the Irish minister for justice, Fine Gael’s Helen McEntee, claimed that 80 per cent of the asylum seekers who end up in the Republic come into the country via the North, abusing the principles of the Common Travel Area. Her figures have been disputed, including by the tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, Micheál Martin. Nevertheless, the Irish government has stuck with the line and blamed Rishi Sunak. Britain’s policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda, so the argument goes, is encouraging them to flee to the safer haven of Ireland. The open border has made it difficult to stop them.

It is not hard to understand why Fine Gael wants to pick this fight now. In November, Dublin was beset by violent riots after an Algerian-born naturalised citizen was arrested following a knife attack at a primary school. Days before, a Slovakian immigrant had been sentenced for the murder of a 23-year-old schoolteacher. Earlier this month, police clashed with protesters unhappy about a proposed asylum centre in rural Wicklow. One protester’s sign read “Irish Lives Matter”.

All of a sudden Ireland has become a tinderbox. The next election will be fought and won by whoever can channel this national unease over immigration. But this is all very new: up until last year the country had never really entertained a national conversation about the number of people entering it; Ireland has always been characterised by mass emigration. The commanding heights of the establishment erroneously believed the country was intractably tolerant. The circulating principle was that Ireland was somehow – owing to its geography and cosmopolitan sensibilities – completely immune to the worst aspects of this very European mode of populism.

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This, of course, turned out to be all wrong. And now Fine Gael is scrambling to cast itself as an effective immigration hawk. The problem is that no one is buying it: 13 years of its own head-in-the-sand immigration policy has led to this moment. That the best the party can do is blame the problem on Sunak is indicative of a profound lack of political imagination. And so, Fine Gael looks like a government in a blind panic, trying to re-litigate the past, screeching towards an election (before next March) with citizens angry enough to try to burn down prospective asylum centres.

There is a deeper irony. Ireland has successfully crafted a very particular international reputation: the little liberal island, recently in possession of all the trappings of grown-up liberalism, with sensible centrist politics and a tolerant people. It used this reputation to fiercely fight for an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland as its central demand of Brexit. On one side were the sensible Irish who respected the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, and on the other the swivel-eyed loons of the Conservative Party who were taking a sledgehammer to hard-won peace.

This was smart politics from Varadkar. The greatest trick Dublin ever played was dressing up its naked self-interest as an urgent moral issue. But that has come back to haunt the government. All of a sudden that open border – insisted upon by Fine Gael as a matter of principle – doesn’t look and feel so good. With the government on the verge of deploying police officers to that border, it is hard not to notice the political inconsistency. Now that anti-immigrant sentiment is about to boil over and the political consequences will be felt in Dublin, it seems Ireland’s lofty principles in the Brexit years were more malleable than we were led to believe. In fact, the government has begun to behave just like the Brexit Britain it so abhorred.

These incidents speak to a deeper existential anxiety in the Republic. The story of modern Irish history might be one of the underdog that managed, somehow, to emerge as a diplomatic superpower, as the Economist declared in 2020. But events of the past year have reversed Ireland’s exceptionalism. It may be rich and in possession of serious soft power. But it is also a country where citizens loot the inner city; chant that Ireland is full; and where the biggest party – Sinn Féin – was born of an ethno-nationalist project. Ireland has been forced into a realisation: in spite of its diplomatic successes, and its decade of rapid liberalisation, it has all the problems of a normal European country.

The central mistake of Fine Gael’s 13-year tenure is simple. It spent so long carefully stage-managing Ireland’s international reputation that it was blind to the problems fomenting all around it. Now the party has stepped back from all the clever reputational manoeuvres – the border, the triumphant gay marriage and abortion referendums, the love affair with Joe Biden’s White House – only to realise that it has built its own death trap.

[See also: Ireland’s progressive centre cannot hold]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March