Noel Whelan: Why Theresa May should listen to John Major on Ireland

Former prime minister was the last senior Conservative politician to truly care about the island

Many British politicians seem more concerned about the impact the Northern Ireland Border will have on Brexit than the impact that Brexit will have on that Border.

Their discourse reached peak hysteria this week when the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, touted the notion that exaggerating fears about the Irish Border had become “a proxy war” for those who want to derail the Brexit project.

On this, as on much else, Johnson is very wrong.

Fears for the future of the Border are not about proxies, power plays, politics or even partition – they are about people. It is about the real people and real lives that will be directly impacted by the re-emergence of a physical frontier.


The concern is for the tens of thousands of people from North and South of that Border whose work situations, family ties or social entanglements involve them crossing the frontier often several times a day.

The concern is for the hundreds of thousands of people living in Border regions whose lives would be impacted by the reimposition of custom checks and the tensions such a customs frontier will ignite.

Violently disrupt

The concern is that any infrastructure on the Border, even if it were the fanciful technology of which Brexiteers speak, would become the focal point for those who still wish to violently disrupt the current peace settlement.

Our concerns are about the “acute” feelings of “resentment”, “anxiety”, “voicelessness” and “polarisation” that is already acute for those living in communities on both sides of the Border because of the pending Brexit scenario.

They are to be found in research carried out for the eight county councils that straddle the Border by Dr Katy Hayward of Queens University. The responses to Hayward's study illustrated how easy everyday cross-Border connectivity is likely to be undermined by even the softest of checks. One of those surveyed said: "The man that fixes my car lives in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh. To drive you'd go out the Cavan road into Co Fermanagh, then into Co Monaghan, then into Co Fermanagh – then you get to his house. I could do that journey in 10 or 15 minutes; what would that be like if crossing an international European border?"

A lived history

The Northern Ireland peace process has been the crowning achievement of three decades of Irish political, diplomatic and community effort. It horrifies us to see all that imperilled by the political psychic drama playing out in the British cabinet. The Conservative government is floundering around without any workable Brexit plan and lashing out at all who dare to challenge its ineptitude. For some, such as Johnson, Northern Ireland has never been more than an Oxford Union debating point. For those living in it or on its frontiers, Northern Ireland and its conflict has been a lived history. We have seen it enjoy a precious peace. We have real cause to worry about its future.

This week John Major got in the face of his successor Theresa May and of Boris Johnson and his ilk

The last senior Conservative politician to truly care about Ireland was John Major. He put in the hours for peace in Northern Ireland. He gambled his depleting stocks of political capital to work with Albert Reynolds to lead the “peace first” strategy that gave rise to the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 and the first IRA ceasefire, in September 1994.

This week John Major got in the face of his successor Theresa May and of Johnson and his ilk. Major delivered a powerful speech in which he itemised the many ways in which the Brexiteers have already been proven wrong. Their promise of an extra £350 million a week for the National Health Service and more schools, lower taxes, more money for transport had been exposed as “electioneering fantasy”.

British voters were told Major said that a trade deal with the EU would be easy to get. Wrong again. After the referendum, Brexiteer ministers said, “Europe can whistle for their money” and “Britain would not pay a penny in exit costs.” Wrong again. “Europe didn’t even have to purse her lips before we agreed to pay £40 billion to meet legitimate liabilities,” Major added.

History of dishonesty

Given this history of dishonestly from the Brexiteers, Major warned that people should pause and reflect that “if the Brexit leaders were wrong in what they said so enthusiastically before – are they not likely to be wrong in what they say now?”

May and her government will also be wrong, Major warned, in their suggestion that a frictionless Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is possible even if Britain leaves the custom union.

“Those of us who warned of the risks Brexit would bring to the still fragile peace process were told at the time” Major said “that we ‘didn’t understand Irish politics’. But it seems we understood it better than our critics.”

Major certainly understands our politics better than those who currently lead his party and mislead the British electorate. This is not about a proxy war – it’s about sustaining a delicate peace.