In or Out – Ireland and the Migration Pact

Politics - April 20, 2024

All of the Irish MEPs who turned up at the Parliament to vote on the new EU pact on asylum and migration voted for its approval. That in itself was noteworthy, A strange bunch of bedfellows, EPP, Liberals, Greens, Left and Far Left all went through the lobby together. Some went happily some with gritted teeth but they all went. So all the government parties and the main opposition party et al voted to adopt the pact. More noteworthy this event was reported widely in the Irish media. Odder again it seems to have attracted the attention of Irish voters. Not since the glory days of the common agricultural policy and structural funds have the deliberations of the European Parliament so piqued the interest of the Irish public and the government is not happy about it.


Any large scale reform will contain elements that will be problematic for different countries for different reasons. It will represent a sales challenge for the politicians back home. This is no different. One obvious problem for new Taoiseach Simon Harris is the Solidarity Pool. When a member state is deemed to be enduring a surge of migrants then other members of the union will be called on to act in Solidarity by either contributing financially or by accepting migrants from the state under pressure. The formula to decide on the dimensions of solidarity expected will be calculated   50% on population size and 50% GDP. Ireland has the second highest GDP in the Union after Luxembourg with its GDP coming in at 245% of the EU average. However everyone knows that the Irish GDP numbers are a fiction and in no way represent the true wealth of the nation. The figure is grossly distorted by the presence of so many large multinational companies whose profits may appear on the national balance sheet but in reality never appear at anytime in the domestic economy. The Irish government body the Central Statistics Office has long adverted to  this fact and prefers to use a what it calls a modified Gross National Income :

Modified Gross National Income (GNI) is an indicator designed specifically to measure the size of the Irish economy by excluding Globalisation effects.


The clear consequence of the current formula would be an expectation that Ireland contribute at a level that would significantly overstate the true state of the nations finances and potentially the number of migrants that it would be expected to accept. This will not be an easy sell to the Irish public right now.


It that was all they had to worry about though they would say full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, but it is not. Really the main government parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and the principle opposition party Sinn Fein would prefer not to have to say Yea or Nay to the pact. They would like to comply but not be complicit. They would prefer to rely on a tactic tried and true for decades in Irish politics; present the voters with a fait accompli and say that they didn’t want to do it but Brussels made them.


They could say this knowing that the average Irish voter is historically amongst the most Europe positive in the union and yet is ready to believe that Brussels is both willing to and has the power to make us do things we do not desire. The Irish voter will recognise that we must take the rough with the smooth and on balance Ireland’s membership of the Union has brought large net benefits to the people.


Sadly this time that option is not open to them. Firstly Ireland is not a part of the Schengen group nor is it likely to be. When then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked, he was clear that if a choice had to be made between Ireland joining Schengen or staying in the Common Travel Area with the United Kingdom then it would be no to Schengen. The economic, political and cultural conditions that pertained then pertain now and the CTA will stay in place.


In 1997 The Treaty of Amsterdam was adopted with a protocol which gave Ireland and the United Kingdom an opt out on matters of Justice and Home Affairs. This protocol was replicated and confirmed in the Lisbon Treaty which had been rejected on first time of asking in a referendum in Ireland. So unfortunately for the Dublin government as regards the pact on migration, Ireland has the choice to opt in or opt out. Brussels cannot make us.


So what to do? Well the first thing that they did was to do nothing. That is, when the bill came before the Dail, it was sent without delay or debate to committee where it can stay until the government parties have decided what story they can sell to a voting public for whom the issue of Immigration has become very important indeed. Having been almost a non issue in Irish politics Immigration and Asylum has in the space of a couple of years the number one number two issue of importance to voters in poll after poll.

A third of voters say that would consider voting for a party that takes a Hard or Strong anti-immigration stance. It is estimated that up to one third of the hotel rooms in the country have been taken up by internation protection applicants. There is a housing crisis and a dire shortage of rental accommodation. All the low hanging fruit available to house asylum seekers has been picked but we expect to receive 15,000 more per annum for the foreseeable future the responsible minister had told the Dail. Leaked documents from the department of Justice indicate that the deportation system is effectively non functioning. Across the country protests and blockades are springing up; a manifestation of the growth of a xenophobic far right we are told. Whatever the truth of that the politics are clear. This is not the time to adopt a pact which might see Ireland having to accept even more responsibilities than she already has. Yet virtually all the parties wish to opt in and ratify the pact.


Fianna Fail and Fine Gael both know that in the villages and towns of the south and west where what is left of their historical strongholds persist immigration is a toxic subject. Sinn Fein the main opposition party oddly maybe in a worse position. Its ancient genetic roots lie in a nineteenth century romantic nationalism fused with autarky and populism. The violence of the Troubles saw a marxian anti colonialist analysis grafted onto that rootstock and over the decades the leadership of the party became more orthodoxly leftist and progressive. As good socialists they are by nature internationalists but many of their voters are less progressive and still retain elements of the old romantic ethnonationalism. That is as fine an internal contradiction waiting to manifest itself as Marx himself could have imagined and it will require some very fancy footwork to avoid precipitating that crisis within the party.


European and local elections are looming so the timing could not be worse for both government and Sinn Fein. Voices are being raised saying that the subject is of such importance that it verges on the constitutional and the decision to opt in or out should be referred to the people in a referendum. In light of the crushing defeat that the last two government proposed and opposition supported amendments to the constitution suffered there is one thing that seems safe to say. The people will not be asked their opinion on this, not while they remain in their current truculent and disgruntled mood.


Simon Harris the youngest ever Taoiseach and Micheal Martin his trusty sidekick are going to have to show a high degree of dexterity and imagination to get themselves out of this pickle because right now they seem to be very much between a rock and a hard place.