Twenty-one years after the Good Friday Agreement Brexit is now the “most serious threat to peace in the North”, according to the two government leaders who negotiated it.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former Prime Minister Tony Blair this week made a joint appeal for a second Brexit referendum in this country.
It is needed, and justified, they said, because is required because any deal that Prime Minister Theresa May manages to agree with MPs or Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is “unlikely to be what people voted for”, said the two former premiers.
They said that they are “duty-bound” to intervene in the Brexit debate.
Though a second Brexit referendum has hitherto been ruled out by Prime Minister Theresa May – and Jeremy Corbyn has also resisted it – there is growing acceptance within the rank and file of the Conservative Party – but not its hard-right, anti-EU ERG faction – that a confirmatory vote is one way out of the Commons deadlock.
Last week, Theresa May was forced to ask EU leaders for a second Brexit extension – from 12 April to 31 October.
Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern wrote their joint appeal to appear in newspapers in the UK and Ireland (The Irish Times and The Guardian).
In it, they describe Brexit as “the most serious threat to peace in the North and to the union in our lifetime”.
They continue: “There is no variation of Brexit that can strengthen the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“There is no variation of Brexit that will grow the economy of the UK any time soon.
“Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit with the risk of a hard border, is both the most serious threat to the Belfast Agreement since it was created and to the union in our lifetime.”
They begin their joint article by describing how they both signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which sought to bring an end to the Troubles – the decades of bloody, sectarian violence which led to the deaths of over 3,000 people.
They go on to say Theresa May and her colleagues in parliament “must learn from previous mistakes” and use the newly-approved flex-tension “to encourage calm amid the chaos”.
“Over the next six months it is likely that elements within the Conservative Party will seek to oust her and push for a new prime minister to fight for what they call a ‘proper Brexit’, the details of which have never been spelled out by Boris Johnson or anyone else.
“Whatever criticisms people may have of Theresa May, her party should reject such manoeuvring.”
At pains not to liken the tragedy of the Troubles to Brexit they warn that “as the rhetoric becomes stronger, the language more divisive and inflammatory, the divisions in the Tory and Labour parties more evident, the necessity for calm matters even more”.
They suggest it is time to move beyond factional, partisan two-party politics and “elevate the discussion above individual interests to the collective, to expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them’.”
They say that, despite uncertainty and tensions, they believe that the Good Friday Agreement will survive Brexit.
It is time for a “confirmatory referendum”, say the two former premiers, because “the people of the UK, should have the final say”.
They say should be asked: “if now, knowing all that they do, they still wish to proceed, on whatever basis is agreed by government and parliament”.
They also note the obvious, that Brexit has made a border poll and a united Ireland all the more likely – and that this is entirely down to the hard Brexiteers and their helpers, the DUP.
“It is no coincidence that several universities and think tanks are now examining what a united Ireland would mean and how it would happen,” they write, referring to recent academic reports that examine the legal frameworks surrounding any future border poll.
“You cannot walk around the island of Ireland without being asked about the future of a united Ireland – and that has resulted from the position on the Border taken by Brexiteers.”
Just signing the agreement in 1998 did not of itself provide for peace in Ireland, they say, adding that it was the “values people ascribed” to it – “Reconciliation. Tolerance. Mutual trust. Respect for the views of others”.
“A shared desire to reach the right conclusion on terms that all but the most extreme can live with and accept. That is the approach needed on Brexit now,” they say.
“The extension gives us another chance. We must not waste it. We must use it wisely, and deliver the three Cs – Calm, Clarity and a Confirmatory vote. Only then can come the fourth C: Closure.”
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