Irish Premier Visits Northern Ireland Amid Migration Row

(Bloomberg) -- Irish prime minister Simon Harris is making his first official visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland Friday, amid a dispute that erupted this week between the UK and Ireland over migration.

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He met with first ministers of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, and Emma Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle. The main item on the agenda was developments since Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive which was restored in February after a two-year suspension.

While the focus of the meeting was north-south relations, there is a lot of attention on the issue of immigration in light of claims by Ireland’s justice minister that 80% of international protection applicants had come from Northern Ireland.

“We have a Common Travel Area between the two islands,” said Harris after the meeting. “I’m determined to work constructively to make sure that the Common Travel Area is protected.”

Ireland’s relationship with the UK has become strained since the new premier’s administration appeared to blame UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda plan for an up tick in the number of migrants crossing into the Republic from Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. The numbers on how many are actually crossing the border aren’t yet clear but it has lead to a row over sending asylum-seekers arriving in Ireland from Northern Ireland back to the UK.

“In relation to the issue of Ireland and Rwanda, that’s more satire than news,” said Harris. “Ireland has its own policy in relation to migration. We have every right to have our own policy. And indeed, we will seek to advance migration policy through our membership of the European Union.”

However, the issue is an important political touchstone for the leaders on both sides of the Irish sea: Harris wants to appear tough on immigration, a major election issue, while Sunak appears to be using the spat as evidence his Rwanda plan, a key pledge to British voters that vows to deport some migrants to the third country, is working.

As a result of the argument, Ireland has made emergency plans to declare the UK a safe place to return asylum seekers. Rishi Sunak ruled out any deal to accept returned asylum-seekers, unless France accepted theirs.

It’s an example of how fraught the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and European Union can be, even though Sunak regards solving the questions around how Northern Ireland would operate after the vote, and repairing relations with the EU as his big achievements.

(Updated headline and first paragraphs to reflect visit had taken place and added comments to fourth and sixth paragraphs.)

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