Tony Blair says protecting Belfast Agreement needs attention of all UK cabinet
Former prime minister and Bertie Ahern both say they believe NI Protocol can be made to work
Former British prime minister Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern pictured signing the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Both men say they believe the current, post Brexit, difficulties can be overcome. Photograph: Dan Chung / Reuters
Former British prime minister Tony Blair has said the UK government’s role in protecting the Belfast Agreement cannot be left to Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis alone but also requires the full engagement and attention of Boris Johnson and the entire Cabinet.
Mr Blair has also said he believes a solution is possible to overcome the current impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol but it will require a lot of patience, trust, and goodwill. He added those qualities seemed to be in short supply at the moment.
Both Mr Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spoke at a virtual seminar on Northern Ireland, Brexit and Europe organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) on Tuesday.
“What I constantly urge the government today is to realise if you want to to protect the Good Friday Agreement you have got to work it in hard, you have to be prepared to really devote time to it, and with the best will in the world that just can’t be left to the secretary of State for Northern Ireland,” said Mr Blair.
“You have to engage the interest and attention of the government and the prime minister. Otherwise what we have built up with a lot of hard work and effort is then at risk.”
Mr Ahern expressed concern about the current difficulties over the operation of the Protocol and said a careful hands-on approach was required. Referring to reports of a strongly-worded letter sent by lead British negotiator David Frost to the EU, Mr Ahern said it would prompt an “inevitable” response from the Union.
“This horse is running away from us. Ireland and Britain need to work on that and through the EU. It’s not good. We are at the start of the marching season and (we will have) enough of tension and problems. It really needs a hands-on response and needs careful handling on all sides,” he said.
He also said that cooperation was required: “If we keep shouting across the water at each other, it is not working.”
In an extended questions and answers session, Mr Blair said it would be possible to find a way through but it would require cooperation rather than unilateralism.
“We would never have had the Good Friday Agreement if I played to my audience simply and Bertie played to his audience simply.”
Big challenges of leadership
He said one of the big challenges of leadership was the degree to which one was willing to make concessions.
He said people needed to make compromises by deciding that “even though there’s an easy and popular solution, we are not taking it.”
Mr Ahern said the Protocol was complicated by the fact that it was the EU, not Ireland, which was leading the negotiations. “There some things we might compromise on but Europe won’t compromise on,” he said.
Talking about the need for more engagement between the British and Irish governments, he noted that an intergovernmental conference has not taken place in the lifetime of the two current administrations, although one is to take place in June. He said such events were vitally important.
Mr Blair said that he has studied the Protocol in detail and believes progress is possible. “I think the advice I would give is to try and break the operation of the Protocol down into the practical.
“You have to look at the facts of what is happening. There may be cases where it is very obvious that rules can carry on being aligned. You may be able to deal with some of these issues in a consensual way.”
He continued: “One of the things we learned with the operation of the Good Friday Agreement (was there was) a whole series of other things that had to be agreed afterwards.
“Sometimes you need to keep going and talk your way through all the different issues, doing it really not by public megaphone, because that only inflames the situation, but doing it in a way that allows you to see where you might remove obstacles, ease the path towards doing things.”
On the issue of a Border poll, Mr Ahern said that three factors needed to be satisfied. The first was the institutions were working; the second was that sufficient planning was done; and the third that a reasonably large proportion of the unionist community had been persuaded it was reasonable.
“The idea of having a sectarian headcount, or ‘us and them’, or pitching one against the other is (not on),” he said.
He said he hoped a poll would happen but “we are some way away from it”.
Mr Blair said that Brexit had put the issue on the agenda in Scotland and Northern Ireland. He said he did not think it was the right time to put it high on the agenda, saying it was more important to get the Northern Protocol sorted.