The key unionist architect of the peace process has dismissed as “rubbish” claims that peace in Northern Ireland could be endangered by the UK leaving the EU.
Speaking to the News Letter, David Trimble dismissed the concerns of the Irish government and others that the relative stability of the post-Agreement era could be put at risk if the UK voted ‘Out’ in the June referendum.
Lord Trimble, who was the unionist behind the 1998 Belfast Agreement, reacted with derision when those claims were put to him.
He said: “There’s absolutely no connection between the peace process and the European Union ... I think this is just scaremongering.”
And the peer – who has moved from having once voted in favour of UK membership of the EU’s predecessor, the European Common Market, to now being firmly in support of a British withdrawal from the EU – said that he believed that in the event of a UK vote for independence from the EU there would be a return to physical border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Over recent months there have been a series of hints and increasingly blunt claims that leaving the EU could jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland.
In January, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked if a UK vote to quit the EU could endanger peace in the Province, he said: “We should not put anything like that at risk. And from our perspective, it would create serious difficulties for Northern Ireland were that to happen.”
Last week Lord Mandelson – a former Secretary of State and a former EU commissioner – warned that leaving the EU could result in “renewed sectarianism” in the Province.
He said: “Anything, in my view, that strengthened a sense of separation between Northern and southern Ireland – physically, economically, psychologically – has the potential to upset the progress that has been made and serve as a potential source of renewed sectarianism.”
When asked about his view of the Taoiseach’s intervention, the former Ulster Unionist leader said: “Well, nobody’s actually spelt out [the alleged threat to peace] – they go around saying it would cause a problem, but they haven’t said how it would cause a problem.
“I do not see that there is a problem, and I’d love to see people pointing out just what the difficulty is.
“I think it’s just grabbing at anything they can find to try and make an argument.”
During a visit to Northern Ireland last month, David Cameron raised the question of whether border controls would be implemented between Northern Ireland and Scotland if (for political or security reasons) they were not implemented at the border itself.
When those comments from the Prime Minister were put to Lord Trimble – who now is a Conservative peer – he said: “Oh look, steady on. We’ve had experience for 50 years of the situation that will exist in the future.
“I mean, from 1920 until we joined the European Union there was a border where there were [trade] tariffs there and people moved back [and forth] and there was never any serious problem ... there was a long time in which we were not in the European Union and there were different tariffs – in fact, largely imposed by Dublin – and that didn’t cause any problems.
“People who are talking about this being complicated and all the rest of it are not talking out of experience; they’re just talking out of ignorance.”
The former First Minister added: “If people in Dublin are worried about their access to the UK market, which is their largest market, then they should be arguing that the European Union should reduce its tariffs further.”
When asked about the decision of his former party, the UUP, to campaign for an ‘In’ vote – something which is not unanimously supported within the party – Lord Trimble said that he “was not surprised” at the decision, but declined to be further drawn on that matter.