Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair says a “durable” political settlement in Northern Ireland has been undermined by Brexit but it “could and should” be fixed.
Speaking in a wide-ranging interview on ‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with…’ the ex-Labour leader added he was convinced the peace would hold despite the tensions Brexit had brought and that the people on the island of Ireland were determined to ensure there could be no return to the past.
Also in the discussion, Sir Tony talks of his early years and what he learned from his parents, to holidaying in Ireland and the key moments working on the Good Friday Agreement and beyond.
Asked if there was a “validity” to the DUP’s objection that the protocol had set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK, Sir Tony said “in one sense what they are saying is correct... the problem is it flows from Brexit”.
He added: “Once you make the external border of the European Union, the border between North and South in Ireland and you've taken the UK out of the single market and Customs Union.
“Naturally the Europeans say, well, in that case, you've got to have border checks.
“If you want rid of those border checks, which we do because of the peace process, and because we want to keep the border open, then you're gonna have to find a way that you can't have goods made in Britain transferred to Northern Ireland then transferred into the European Union without any checks.
“So, I mean, does the Northern Ireland Protocol mean that Northern Ireland is to be treated differently than it was when it was part of the single market and Customs Union? Well, to a degree, but the whole purpose of the protocol was to find a way around that.
“And it after all, was agreed by the UK Government and the European Union.
“Now, 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.
“I think if you approach this in a practical way, you can find a solution and I hope we do find a solution and now that Kier Starmer, for example has said that, from the Labour Party perspective, he'll back the government and we're not going to play politics with this issue. It should be possible to do but you know, when people say to me, ‘Well, why have we got this problem in Northern Ireland?’.
“We were always going to have a problem in Northern Ireland. With the border. If the UK leaves the European Union, the Republic of Ireland doesn't and we leave the economic structures as well as the political ones.”Brexit, he said, had “clearly” put a strain on the Union but he hoped it would not lead to its break up.
He added: “A majority of people in Scotland and a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit.
“They wanted to remain part of Europe. They realised it was in their economic and political interests and frankly, there's nothing has happened since we did Brexit to make them think that they took the wrong view.
“So and of course, this is one of the reasons why it's so important to resolve this issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol quickly.
“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 Brexit couldn’t be undone for this generation.
Sir Tony added: “But what you can do is fix it and make sure that you deal with the problems of Brexit like the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“You can build relations with Europe, you can build structures of pillars of cooperation and understanding.
“We can change our legal and political relationship, but we can't change our geography when you go by train from London to Paris quicker than you do to Edinburgh or even Newcastle on some days.
“So the idea that is ever sensible for us to separate ourselves from our continent, so okay, we've done Brexit you can't undo it at least for this generation, because people don't want to go back into the divisive argument.
“But you do have to fix the problems and you have to accept there are problems.”
‘Eamonn Mallie Face to Face with Tony Blair’ aired on Wednesday, January 25 at 9pm and is now available on ITV X here.
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