Former prime minister, and one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair has said issues around the Northern Ireland protocol can be resolved between the EU and UK if both sides drop their ideologies.
He also said it was “bizarre” that unionists supported the breakup. He said “in one sense” unionists were right to object to the protocol in how it sets NI apart from the UK, “but the problem is it flows from Brexit”.
“My own belief is that if both sides are flexible and you take the ideology out of this and look at just the practicality because most goods that come from Britain going into Northern Ireland, are staying in Northern Ireland," Sir Tony said.
“I think if you approach this in a practical way, you can find a solution and I hope we do find a solution.”
The prime minister from 1997 to 2007 was speaking exclusively to UTV on the popular interview series ‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with …’ ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The protocol was agreed between the EU and UK as a way of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It has sparked anger with unionists as it instead placed a border down the Irish Sea for goods separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The DUP are boycotting Stormont’s power-sharing institutions until the issue is resolved which has left local government in stasis.
Sir Tony said it was vital a solution was found to the protocol and quickly, warning not only was the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy, but also the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“It's important because the longer it goes on the bigger that strain on the Union is, which is why it's always been to me bizarre, frankly, that unionism has been in favour of Brexit," he said.
The former Labour leader said the most important lesson to take from 1998 for today’s politics was how leaders took difficult decisions that they knew would “disconcert” their own people.
He said peace would not have been possible in Northern Ireland had people not been prepared to set politics aside and “concentrate on what’s right”.
He said: “I think the most important lesson for contemporary politics was in the end, the Good Friday Agreement came about because all sorts of different people in positions of leadership were prepared to take difficult decisions and decisions that they knew would disconcert some of the people in their own ranks.
“But they decided to do it.
“And that is a type of political leadership that's not very common now.
“We could never have made peace in Northern Ireland, if we hadn't had people prepared to put the politics to one side and just concentrate on what was right.”
Speaking of the agreement, of which he was very proud, Sir Tony said it worked “mostly” but was not working as it should at the moment.
And on the conflict in Ukraine, he said his work on the agreement over two decades ago could not be compared with how to get a possible resolution agreed with Russian president Valdimir Putin.
“That is a whole different ball game... A more difficult situation," he said. “You could say in NI… unionists have a case and nationalists have a case.
“You can only bring it to an end in a way that doesn’t reward Putin’s aggression.”
The wide-ranging interview charts the life of the politician - who secured three historic terms for Labour in office - from his early years on what he learned from his parents to holidaying in Donegal and down to the key moments working on the agreement and beyond.
He said many of his formative years were holidaying with his family in Donegal, in particular Rossnowlagh where his family on his mother’s side were from.
His grandfather was an Orangeman and he describes his grandmother as a “very staunch - you might almost say somewhat prejudiced - protestant”.
Those early years instilled a passion in him for Ireland to a point he said it was in his blood. He said he felt there was an “old-fashioned dispute” at the heart of the matter and with determination, there could be a way through.
“When I thought there was an opportunity to make a difference and to change the politics of the island of Ireland, I took it,” he said.
In the interview, Sir Tony discusses the process to finding agreement, how it almost collapsed at the eleventh hour and the nature of the protagonists involved. He goes on to document later talks and how he brought Ian Paisley and the DUP onboard by taking them to a “nice place” for “difficult conversations”.
On the current collapse of power-sharing, he said he was left very frustrated, saying it was all “very unnecessary” but peace would hold.
He said there was always going to be a problem in Ireland with the UK leaving the EU as that would mean the border between north and south would form part of the EU’s external border.
Sir Tony, who was crucial in turning around the fortunes of the Labour party, said a “durable” political settlement had been undermined by Brexit, but a solution could be found to fix it in the “right way”.
He said the Good Friday Agreement had worked “mostly” and was not working as it should at the moment.
“When you compare life in Northern Ireland today with what it was when I was growing up in in the 1980s, you used to wake up virtually every morning to radio or television stories about a fresh atrocity, a terrorist attack, someone being killed," he said.
“Northern Ireland was just woven in the fabric of UK politics in a deeply negative way.
“And I think for a lot of people who don't remember what it was like for the Good Friday Agreement, you know, maybe they just take it for granted.”
He said that while Brexit had put a strain on the union, in Northern Ireland and also in Scotland a united Ireland was not inevitable.
“But we created an agreement that put that in the hands of the people.”
‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with Tony Blair’ airs Wednesday, January 25 at 9pm.
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