Major and Blair’s Brexit warnings for NI spark row with Foster, Dodds, Villiers and Hoey

Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair attend a Remain campaign at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair attend a Remain campaign at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

One of the fiercest rows of the EU referendum flared up yesterday when Northern Ireland Brexit backers attacked John Major and Tony Blair.

The two former prime ministers had flown into the Province to warn about the general UK-wide consequences of quitting the European Union, but also the specific risks to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry ahead of a Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

Their comments drew a sharp response from local supporters of a British withdrawal from the EU, led by the First Minister, Arlene Foster.

Her DUP deputy Nigel Dodds, the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and the Labour MP Kate Hoey were among other Brexit supporters to round on the former Tory and Labour leaders.

Sharing a platform at Ulster University in Londonderry, Sir John and Mr Blair warned that a vote to leave the EU would be an “historic mistake” which could threaten the hard-fought peace process and risk splitting the UK.

Mrs Foster said that it was “rather sad that people from the past in politics should come over here and try to destabilise Northern Ireland”.

Ms Villiers insisted that support for the peace process was “rock solid”, and said it was “highly irresponsible” to suggest the referendum result could restart the Troubles.

Mr Dodds said that any suggestion that peace was at risk was “irresponsible nonsense”, while Ms Hoey dismissed Sir John and Mr Blair as “yesterday’s politicians”.

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Both the former prime ministers addressed an audience at the Magee College campus that was largely made up of school pupils.

Sir John Major warned that the “wrong outcome” on June 23 could “tear apart the UK” by reopening the Scottish independence debate.

Sir John, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said it would be “an historic mistake to do anything that has any risk of destabilising the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins stability in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Blair, who occupied 10 Downing Street from 1997 to 2007, urged voters not to “take a punt” on the Leave campaign, warning: “Don’t let them take risks with Northern Ireland’s future. Don’t let them undermine our United Kingdom.”

The one-time Labour and Conservative premiers were welcomed on stage by Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost of Coleraine and Magee, who said that they had been “instrumental in the peace process that has transformed this city and we would like to thank them for that”.

Mr Major said the referendum was “about the people in every part of the United Kingdom ... a union of four countries”.

He said that in the Scottish separatist referendum of 2014 there had been a last-ditch UK-wide appeal to the Scots to stick with Britain. “Wisely, against the advice of the Scottish National Party, the Scots did that,” he said.

The result had settled that matter for a generation and beyond, he said, with one qualification – the scenario in which Scotland votes to stay in the EU and the UK as whole votes to leave.

That would lead to the serious risk of new Scots referendum, and if the UK was outside the EU “I can well envisage a different result”.

“To everyone who is wavering,” Mr Major said about the Brexit vote, “please understand the potential, perhaps the likely, consequences”.

He added: “I say without a shadow of doubt in my mind that the wrong outcome on June 23 will affect our Union and will jeopardise that Union, because the plain uncomfortable truth is that the unity of the United Kingdom itself is on the ballot paper in two weeks time.”

Mr Major said that with regard to Northern Ireland, no other issue had preoccupied his premiership more than the bid to get peace in the Province. He had been PM for the 1993 Downing Street declaration before the 1994 IRA ceasefire, leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement when Mr Blair was prime minister.

It would be a historic mistake to do anything that destabilised the carefully achieved peace that had been achieved.

“That is what a British exit from the EU would do,” he said. “It would throw all the pieces from the constitutional jigsaw in the air and no-one would be certain where they might land.”

Mr Blair also spoke about the peace in Northern Ireland that had been achieved and the “stronger and better than ever before” relations between Britain and Ireland.

He spoke about the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, that has existed since the 1920s.

“If we as the UK vote to leave we will be in a new unique situation,” he said, “The border of the Republic becomes the border of the EU.”

There would still be free movement of people within the EU, he said, but if the CTA was retained “then someone from any part of the EU can come from the south then to the north”. He said that in that scenario, there would be “either border controls on the border between north and south ... [or the] only alternative would then be to have them between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which would plainly be unacceptable as well”.

It was, he said, “not a small detail” but one that goes to the heart of the Brexit debate.

Leaving the UK “would put our Union at risk, be a deeply damaging, a reckless course”.

The referendum outcome was “of particular importance to people of Northern Ireland”, he said, which was “why I am proud to be here with my predecessor John Major”.

Mr Blair said of the Leave campaigners: “Don’t let them take risks with Northern Ireland’s future. Don’t let them undermine our United Kingdom.”

During their visit, the two former PMs walked across the 2011 Peace Bridge across the River Foyle. They are the latest high-profile visitors to Northern Ireland to speak about the impact of Brexit here. This week the Chancellor George Osborne was in Warrenpoint to talk about the effect withdrawal from the EU would have on cross-border business. Last week Lord Mandelson was in Belfast, where he issued similar warnings.

Prominent supporters of Brexit have also visited Northern Ireland, including Daniel Hannan MEP who debated Lord Mandelson. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are among other Leave supporters who have visited the Province.

Foster, Dodds and Hoey fiercely dismiss NI fears of two ex PMs