Two former Prime Ministers, both architects of Northern Ireland’s peace process, today (Saturday) come together to plead with MPs not to wreck the Good Friday Agreement by voting through Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit proposal.
Sir John Major and Tony Blair have made a film which will be broadcast at today’s huge Together for the Final Say march in which they warn that backing these proposals would be a reckless gamble with people’s lives and a fragile peace.
Both leaders, once fierce political opponents, are united in giving their full support to the demand for a People’s Vote as the only democratic way to settle the Brexit crisis.
Sir John, the Conservative Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997, makes clear his astonishment that his own party’s government is now trying to force through proposals that put at risk the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole. He says:
“Leaving Europe, carrying Brexit through, will raise strains we know of and strains we haven't yet thought of. That may well end up with dividing a United Kingdom that has been together for a very long time. It is a thoroughly bad idea.
“I find it very difficult to understand as a former leader of the Conservative Party, why it is the Conservative and Unionist Party is taking action that may in the future break apart the United Kingdom. That seems to be an extraordinary thing, and I cannot imagine any previous generation of Conservatives putting at risk the Union in the way that has now happened.”
On Northern Ireland, Sir John says:
“There's a whole generation of people in Northern Ireland who have no memory of what life was like before the Good Friday agreement. No one under the age of 20 would have any memory of the violence and death that once engulfed their neighbourhoods. I hope and pray they never do.
“I am unsurprised this come down to the issue of the Irish border, and I am unsurprised at the end that the Democratic Unionists appear not to be able to support the agreement that has been reached…it seems to me the agreement that has been reached is not materially better in any serious way than the agreement that Theresa May reached, which was rejected by precisely the people who are now promoting this particular agreement.
“And I think one is bound to ask why that should be? … A border down the Irish Sea also has many difficulties. It splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. And that, of course, always plays on the inherent fears of Northern Ireland, that they're being ignored, that they're being maltreated. And those fears are very real. And they need to be addressed and they need to be assuaged.”
Mr Blair warns that peace in Ireland risks being sacrificed to satisfy the Brexit obsession of a hardline faction of MPs. He says:
“The Good Friday Agreement was a careful, painstaking construction in which the conflicting aspirations of Unionists and Nationalists were held in the most delicate balance. It was a framework for peace, for prosperity, for partnership between the communities of Northern Ireland and between the UK and the Republic.
“Now either there is a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain or a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. And it is a shame and an outrage that peace in Northern Ireland is now treated as some disposable inconvenience to be bartered away in exchange for satisfying the obsession of the Brexiteers with wrenching our country out of Europe.
“Either Northern Ireland and its hard-won peace is sacrificed on the Brexit altar. Or we end up in the bizarre situation where Northern Ireland stays in Europe’s trading system and Great Britain leaves with a Hard Brexit which itself requires years more of Brexit negotiations and distraction from the real issues facing the country.”
On the case for a final say referendum, Sir John says:
“There are many reasons for a confirmatory referendum. To make sure that you have the support of the people in Northern Ireland is certainly one of them.
“[Another] powerful reason for looking at the question of a confirmatory referendum, not out of any spite or disinterest or disregard for the first result, [is] because there are two million people who voted in that referendum who sadly are no longer with us.
“And two and a half million young people who are now on the register who may have very different views about our future in Europe and also a complete generation in Northern Ireland who will have known of their past, who will not wish that past to return again in any form… Now they are old enough wish to express their views in a referendum as to the future of their country and their prospects and their life.”
Mr Blair says:
“Whatever is the outcome, No Deal or Bad Deal, it should not pass without the final say resting with the people.
“These Brexiteers talk about the will of the people. But in 2016 our knowledge was necessarily limited. Now, three years on, three years of mess, misery and mayhem, when our knowledge is vastly expanded by experience, how can it be undemocratic to ask the British people their final opinion?
“The truth is these demagogues talk of ‘the will of the people’ but are terrified of seeking it. Their worry is not that a Final Say referendum is a blow to democracy, they worry that if we have one, instead of the fantasies they peddled in June 2016, this time we will have a debate on the facts, and they will lose.”
Notes to editors
Video of the comments by Sir John Major and Tony Blair can be seen here:https://www.dropbox.com/s/spnekrhoja9n5ik/PRESS%20RELEASE%20SELECTS%20REVISED.mov?dl=0