There have been suggestions that Operation Gull - an ongoing British immigration initiative designed to stop abuse of the Common Travel Area (CTA) that saw 800 people either stopped or arrested by immigration officers and police in Derry, Belfast and Larne in just a single year recently - should be suspended.
Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly has asked if it might not be better to abandon the controversial anti-immigration operation, which has been dogged by allegations of racial profiling.
In response, Professor Colin Harvey, an expert on human rights law, has suggested that policy makers in Ireland generally need to start a fresh conversation around immigration with the Westminster government moving towards “a bad place” in respect of its attitude towards migrants and open borders.
The matter was recently raised in the Oireachtas when the Seanad’s special Brexit committee, heard from Dr. Harvey, a lecturer in Human Rights Law, at the Queen’s University, Belfast.
During the briefing session Senator Daly raised the ongoing and controversial Operation Gull, which involves the deployment of immigration officers at ports in Derry, Belfast and Larne, ostensibly to guard against abuse of the CTA by illegal migrants.
He said: “In the current context of the UK’s membership of the EU, it has instituted Operation Gull, which has been accused of racially profiling people who are travelling from Northern Ireland into Britain, and has immigration officers in place already.
“This has been happening for a number of years, prior to the Brexit vote. In one calendar year, 792 people who tried to enter Britain from Northern Ireland were arrested.”
He went on to ask: “Have the witnesses a view on what should be done at Derry, Belfast and Larne? Should Operation Gull be suspended? Alternatively, should the UK institute its immigration controls in Northern Ireland rather than trying to have border controls on people travelling between the North and the South? It seems bizarre.”
Responding to Senator Daly’s concerns Dr. Harvey suggested Ireland, north and south, needs to distance itself from what he described as increasingly regressive anti-migrant policy emanating from London.
“To repeat the point about Operation Gull and other matters, I genuinely think that on this island we need to start a new conversation about where we want to go on some of these issues, including immigration, asylum and refugee policy,” he told the committee.
“The Westminster Government is going, in my view, to a bad place in respect of some of these issues and we must bring our mind to these questions.
“For example, does the Westminster approach to immigration and asylum suit us in Northern Ireland? It is not a devolved issue down the road. It is the same in Scotland. We need to think of more constitutionally pluralist ways across these islands.
“Migration is one such issue, and we need to see human rights and equality. “Racial profiling is appalling, given some of our values and principles, and we should not be involved in arrangements that are facilitating it.
“Many people thought a new constitutional conversation was happening in the UK, in Scotland as much as Northern Ireland.
“A shocking thing for many people involved in constitutional law was that they thought the UK was becoming a more constitutionally pluralist place, a place where the Good Friday Agreement principles were respected in law but unfortunately, in the past few years that has proved to be wrong,” he said.
Operation Gull has been running since the mid-2000s when the British Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) was still in existence. Run variously by the Border and Immigration Agency, the UK Border Agency and now Immigration Enforcement, it’s been criticised by human rights groups. A recent House of Lords report on the potential impact of Brexit noted “accusations of racial profiling in [Operation Gull’s] identification of individuals selected for interview in UK ports and airports”.