French border officials scrambling to solve the small boat migrant crisis stopped talks to their UK counterparts for three months last year as the row over the AUKUS submarine deal emerged. Emmanuel Macron was left furious in August 2021 after Australia decided to scrap a multi-billion dollar French submarine contract and join the lucrative UK and US alliance, AUKUS. The French President accused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying to him about the submarines while his Foreign Minister called the alliance a “stab in the back”.
Dan O’Mahoney, who is leaving his role as the head of Britain’s Clandestine Channel Threat Command, put the silence down to an extension of a “post-Brexit freeze” between the UK and France by the row over the submarines.
He claimed his opposite number refused to engage with the UK for three months – despite the migrant crisis escalating with the number of small boats reaching their highest-ever level at that point.
Mr O’Mahoney told The Telegraph: “I think I’ve been over [to France] 35 times personally, including all the way through lockdown,” he said.
“During that time we’ve experienced the post-Brexit freeze in the relationship starting to thaw. Then the AUKUS submarine deal created another freeze at one point. My French counterpart didn’t speak to me for about three months.
“We came out the other side of that, and now we’re in this really great position where both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are really clearly and genuinely committed to the French relationship.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced earlier this week that Mr O’Mahoney’s command center will be replaced by a new “small boats operational command” unit.
It will see the Home Office regain control of operations following eight months of Royal Navy “primacy” in the Channel. The latest figures from the UK Government show more than 44,000 people have crossed the Channel this year.
Mr O’Mahoney believes there is a chance the number of English Channel crossings by boat could start to “plateau” next year because criminal gangs have reached their maximum capacity of illegal migrants.
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He said: “I don’t think we’re going to continue to see that exponential rise next year”, adding that over the next couple of years, the UK has the chance “to make a real difference and to start reversing that trend “.
Earlier this week, the UK minister announced that British officers will begin joint patrols with their continental counterparts. This could happen within “weeks if not days”, according to Mr O’Mahoney.
He said officials have been working with their French counterparts to iron out the details, including reassurance that UK officers will not be allowed to exercise any powers while abroad and must be kept “protected” from criminal gangs.
The outgoing head of Britain’s Clandestine Channel Threat Command said: “It’s really boring administrative stuff that we need to get through, but I’m confident that we are weeks if not days away from the first patrols happening.”
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Mr O’Mahoney went onto praise the “incredibly dedicated” Border Force staff, claiming they have had to face taunts of “traitors” while out shopping in Dover wearing their uniforms because locals were furious at them for migrants arriving on UK shores.
He said: “I’ve had similar sorts of comments made about me on social media. But when somebody’s staring you in the eyes as they’re close to drowning in the icy waters of the English Channel there’s only one right course of action.
“In taking that course of action, they’ve saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives.
“In any other walk of life, they’d be hailed as heroes, because that’s exactly what they are. They’re heroes, and it’s been an absolute privilege to work alongside them.”
On Tuesday, Mr Sunak vowed “enough is enough” as he unveiled a raft of new measures to curb English Channel crossings.
The Prime Minister announced plans to establish a new “small boats operational command” as he told ministers in the House of Commons: “Unless we act now and decisively, this will only get worse.”