Alan Johnson said yesterday that he feared relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland could deteriorate in the event of a Brexit vote.
The Labour MP and former Home Secretary was speaking to the News Letter during a tour of the Delta Packaging business in west Belfast, as part of his campaign for the UK to stay in the EU.
“The relationship between Britain and Ireland has never been better than it is now and that has the prospect of deteriorating,” he said. “I can’t walk down the street in Whitehall without an Irish ambassador or former ambassador tripping me up to tell me how important it is that we win this campaign. There is a big Irish Diaspora in the Labour Party.”
Mr Johnson, chair of Labour In For Britain, declined to speculate on how the Remain campaign is doing, saying plebiscites are unpredictable and that the six weeks before the vote would be key.
He said that Brexit was a “problem anywhere in the country but I think it has got specific problems over here”.
Mr Johnson said: “If we leave the EU there is a land border for the first time with a European Union country and a non European Union country.”
He said that before the UK joined the (then) European Economic Community “people queued up, vans queued at the border to pass checkpoints to come north, there’s the prospect of that being reinstated”.
Mr Johnson was accompanied on his visit to Delta by Vernon Coaker MP, shadow Secretary of State for NI. The company distributes its products across Europe.
“I think there is every prospect of border controls coming back,” Mr Johnson said of Brexit. In what way they might come back, he said, was unclear, but various factors including customs “has to suggest some kind of border control”.
He said that another factor specific to Northern Ireland was “the peace process and the European Union’s played a role in that”.
His mention in this interview and elsewhere of the role of the EU in relation to peace in the Province drew a sharp response from Lee Reynolds, NI Vote Leave regional director, who said: “The Pro-EU campaign needn’t have bothered writing a scare story especially for Northern Ireland. Yet again they demonstrate they have no positive case to make for us to stay in the EU and why we should vote leave and take control.
“It is a shame that Alan Johnson has rowed in behind the strategy of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein to make bogus threats to politics in Northern Ireland around the EU referendum.”
“He could not have been more explicit, he made a speech at the weekend down in the West Country. At least on this occasion we didn’t have to pay for the privilege unlike the £9m the government is spending on false pro-EU propaganda.”
• No Comment on Labour in NI
The News Letter asked Mr Johnson about the Ulster-born Labour MP Kate Hoey’s support for Brexit.
He said: “My old friend Kate, yeah, she was at my wedding and we were together in the Campaign for Labour Representation in Northern Ireland. I think she was wrong on this just as I think she was wrong on several issues but she’s one of seven Labour MPs out of 232 Labour MPs [to support Brexit]. It is a remarkable solidarity.”
When it was put to Mr Johnson that his leader Jeremy Corbyn was not keen on the EU, he said: “He supports being part of the European Union. People have been on all kinds of journeys since [the referendum of] 1975.”
Mr Johnson sidestepped questions about his views on the bid by Labour members in NI to stand for election, saying the EU trumped all issues until June 23.