Blair says politicians who fail to back Belfast Agreement should pay electoral price

Former British prime minister praises Dublin’s approach to Brexit negotiations

Tony Blair: “At the end of the day the people of Northern Ireland have to stand up for this agreement at a certain point.” Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Blair: “At the end of the day the people of Northern Ireland have to stand up for this agreement at a certain point.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

Former British prime minister Tony Blair has urged the people of Northern Ireland to stand up for the Belfast Agreement by making politicians pay an electoral price for failing to implement it.

Mr Blair said it was not for him to say how people should vote, but he pointed out that the “moderate” parties were more supportive of the agreement.

“At the end of the day the people of Northern Ireland have to stand up for this agreement at a certain point. They will also exert electoral pressure on the parties.They have to make clear to their political leaders from whatever party they want them to find a way through this impasse and the agreement moving forward again. And the moderate parties will be the ones who are advocating this.”

Mr Blair, who will take part in an event in Belfast on Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the agreement, said issues such as an Irish Language Act which were at the centre of the impasse could be resolved with “more focus and work”.

He expressed confidence that the agreement would survive Brexit, although Britain’s decision to leave the EU posed a challenge to the governing concept underpinning the peace process.

“The governing concept was a huge concession on the part of nationalism and republicanism which was the acceptance of the principle of consent, which is that as long as a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to stay part of the UK, they can stay part of the UK.

The importance of the backstop is that it is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the [UK] government which is going to have to try to minimise that Border

“Now, that principle had never been accepted since partition and it was accepted in the Good Friday Agreement. But in return for that, unionism agreed that it had to accept that the nationalists had a legitimate right to voice their aspiration for a united Ireland.

“So out of that came a power-sharing agreement, a new police force in Northern Ireland, changes to the criminal justice system, a whole lot of cultural, symbolic questions being resolved. And part of that nationalist aspiration is to have an open border between North and South.”

Backstop

Mr Blair praised the way the Government in Dublin had approached the Brexit negotiations, noting the EU’s success in persuading the UK to accept a backstop arrangement to guarantee that there would be no hard border. If no other solution is found, the backstop requires regulatory alignment between North and South.

“The importance of the backstop is that it is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the [UK] government which is going to have to try to minimise that Border.

“But the important thing to understand is that the Irish Border question is a metaphor for the entire negotiation. Basically, the problem at the heart of the Northern Ireland question for Brexit is the same as the problem you’ve got across the whole of the UK, which is how can you have frictionless trade if you are out of the single market? The answer is you can’t. So the question then is: how much friction?”