Northern Ireland

Analysis: Blunt British immigration legislation could spell trouble for the north

There was a widespread welcome for the High Court ruling on the Illegal Migration Act but some warn its implications may prove problematic

A member of the military at passport control
The High Court has ruled that parts of the UK government’s Illegal Migration Act should be disapplied in Northern Ireland (Peter Powell/PA)

Immigration is an increasingly important issue in Britain and the Republic, and has become especially vexed with elections looming. In Northern Ireland, it doesn’t yet rank as far up the political agenda but depending on who you listen to, that could be about to change.

The UK government’s Illegal Migration Act has proved contentious for a number of reasons.

The legislation aims to give the British government new powers to detain and remove asylum seekers who are believed to have arrived in the UK illegally. A central plank of the new laws is the controversial Rwanda scheme, which would see asylum seekers flown to the central African country for their claims to be processed there.

Monday’s High Court ruling in Belfast related to the Illegal Migration Act’s incompatibility with the Windsor Framework, the post-Brexit arrangements agreed last year between the UK and EU, which relate mostly to trade.

Mr Justice Humphreys ruled that the legislation’s provisions should be disapplied in Northern Ireland, as they undermine human rights protections guaranteed by the revised protocol arrangements, including a stipulation that there can be no diminution of the rights provisions contained in the Good Friday Agreement.

For what it’s worth, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he plans to appeal the ruling. Labour has been highly critical of the Rwanda scheme but less outspoken on the broader, associated legislation, which suggests it’s less unlikely to be repeal the Illegal Migration Act, at least in its entirety, when there’s a change of government.

The High Court’s decision has been welcomed by opposing factions but for different reasons.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a keynote address at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak plans to appeal the High Court ruling on the Illegal Immigration Act

Liberals and those on the left believe the legislation is ill-thought out and breaches people’s human rights.

The DUP voiced what turned out to be legitimate concerns that, because of the Windsor Framework, the act would not apply to the UK as a whole.

The TUV raised similar arguments but attacked the “empty promises” of the British government and DUP. Jim Allister highlighted how the Safeguarding the Union command paper, which paved the way for the restoration of the institutions earlier this year, claimed the Windsor Framework applies “only in respect of the trade in goods”.

The TUV leader also claimed that the court ruling would either see what he termed an “immigration border” in the Irish Sea and the north “wide open as a magnet for asylum seekers”. DUP leader Gavin Robinson used similar language in his call for immigration policy to apply “equally across every part of the United Kingdom”.

Already in recent weeks, Northern Ireland’s unique post-Brexit situation has led to claims that it has become a staging post for asylum seekers en route to the Republic.

The primary concern appears to be the unintended consequences of having legislation that for the reasons outlined previously seemingly creates a geopolitical loop hole, or in bleaker terms, an utter mess.

Unless this legislation is abandoned altogether and replaced with a policy that is less blunt, it may well have serious implications for the Common Travel Area, or could even bring the so far largely insignificant issue of immigration bubbling to the surface.