ALASTAIR CAMPBELL speaks to the two former-prime ministers about how the prime minister’s deal undermines the progress made in Northern Ireland.
There is a well-known device in journalism, known as a ‘was talking to’. You will have noticed it sometimes, when reading to the very end of an article written by someone who is not a journalist or regular commentator, but a sports star, or a business figure, or politician, and finally you see the words: “A [public figure] was talking to B [journalist].” It usually means a paper has asked A to write a piece, but A has said they don’t have the time, so B has suggested a quick interview over the phone which B then turns into a signed piece by A, ghosted with their agreement by B.
In my time, I have been both A and B, and this week am B again, and the As are very A indeed, namely two of the six people alive who have known what it is to be prime minister of the UK.
I talked to John Major and Tony Blair not for a newspaper article, but for the film we played at last Saturday’s People’s Vote rally, on how the Good Friday Agreement was made, and on how both fear for the future of the Union and for peace if Brexit goes ahead in the way proposed by Boris Johnson.
When the film was played, though it was several minutes long, and the crowd in Parliament Square huge, and stretching back as far as Hyde Park, it was heard in total silence but for the sound of a helicopter above getting aerial shots of the masses demanding a People’s Vote. After the event, there were lots of comments from fellow marchers, most on the lines of “keep going”, but many pointing out the gulf in character, competence and morality between these two former residents of Number 10, and the current occupant. I would add another quality that they have and Johnson lacks – the ability to speak clearly in flawless English, and explain complex issues in language anyone can understand.
There was so much more in their interviews than we managed to use in the film, so here are some ‘was talking to’ extracts from both…
Major: When I became prime minister, the people of Northern Ireland found themselves living with bombings, shootings, murders, beatings, kneecappings, month after month. It was a way of life that would have been utterly intolerable in any other part of the United Kingdom. Murder was so routine that it was no longer headline news.
Violence also came to the British mainland. In London, the City, Oxford Street, Knightsbridge were bombed. So was the House of Commons, and 10 Downing Street. Bombings in Manchester, Birmingham, Guildford and Warrington, where two little boys were murdered while buying cards for Mothering Sunday. For those who never lived through those times, it must be almost impossible to imagine. For those of us who did, it’s still difficult to comprehend.
Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and I both shared a view that it was intolerable, that the 30 years of violence that killed 3,000 people simply could not be permitted to continue. We decided to look for common ground. We were working against a backdrop of tremendous support against the men and women of violence from whichever community they came. There was a genuine sense of people power and it grew.
Bit by bit, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process transformed the lives of all those on the island of Ireland, north and south. Violence ended, friendships were nurture, old hatreds faded. The relationship between London, Belfast and Dublin became better than at any time in history. A key part of this transformation was our mutual membership of the European Union. It broke down borders across Ireland. It increased and simplified trade. It brought north and south closer together. And London and Dublin became close allies, not least around the European table. Brexit will significantly weaken those links and damage the economies of both our countries.
But the Good Friday agreement was about far more than trade or jobs or profits. It replaced violence with peace. That peace is still fragile. It cannot and must not be a mere afterthought. My fear and that of many others is that Brexit may put that peace at risk. Having been so hard won, and it is to Tony Blair’s eternal credit that it was, it must surely never be allowed to be lost. It is worth remembering that no one under the age of 20 would have any memory of the violence and deaths that once engulfed their neighbourhoods. I hope and pray they never do. It would be the most recklessly irresponsible act to risk losing what took so long to achieve. And a gamble that no British government should ever take, whatever political policy they wish to pursue.
I totally supported Tony Blair in what he did and for the referendum we liaised. A fool could have seen the difficulties there was going to be with a border between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which would be on the southern end of Northern Ireland. We remembered that when the violence began. It began with the murder of customs officers at a customs border. We went to Ireland together to warn of the difficulties there would be. And I’m sad to say that many of the people in Northern Ireland just shrugged their shoulders and said, what did they know of Ireland? And that, I’m afraid, was also true of the of the then British cabinet. I was disappointed that people could not see the dangers that would be likely to arise.
I am unsurprised at the end that the Democratic Unionists appear not to be able to support the agreement that has been reached. It was rejected by precisely the people who are now promoting this particular agreement. But I do think there is going to be a real difficulty in Northern Ireland being treated differently. I think there are many reasons for a confirmatory referendum and making sure that you have the support of the people in Northern Ireland is certainly one of them.
A border down the Irish Sea 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. There is now not a shred of doubt in my mind that the integrity of the United Kingdom, both in terms of Scotland and in terms of Northern Ireland, is at greater threat. 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.
Blair: The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t even expected. When I first told cabinet colleagues we would try for it, most of them told me it was hopeless. It took years of laying the ground through the excellent work of John Major when he was prime minister. And it took extraordinary intensity of focus to negotiate the agreement in April 1998. It then took nine years to implement, nine years of tension, tortuous negotiation and a relentless refusal to give up.
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 and also for partnership between the different communities of Northern Ireland; and between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The debate on Brexit has now come down to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain or a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. The deal Johnson has struck means they have gone for the border between Britain and Northern Ireland, which has huge potential consequences for the Union, not just in Northern Ireland but for Scotland too who will ask why they cannot have the same.
It is not just a shame but 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.
So we end up with a situation where either Northern Ireland and its hard-won peace is sacrificed on the Brexit altar. Or a bizarre situation where Northern Ireland stays in Europe’s trading system and Britain leaves it and leaves with a hard Brexit, which itself requires years more. A Brexit negotiation and Brexit distraction from the real issues.
Whatever is the outcome now, 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 June 2016, our knowledge was necessarily limited. Now, three years on of mess and 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 now of actually seeking it. They don’t worry that if we do, it’s a blow to democracy. They worry that if we do, instead of the fantasies they peddled in June 2016, this time we will have a debate on the facts. And this time they will lose.
Tony Blair and John Major were talking to Alastair Campbell, who didn’t have to change a single word!