Sir John Major’s fears with May’s DUP deal
Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major, who led the UK government from late 1990 to May 1997, has expressed fears for Northern Ireland’s peace process if PM Theresa May does a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government.
Following the 1992 General Election, which most expected him to lose, Major faced an ever dwindling Commons majority because of rebellions led by his party’s Eurosceptics or “swivel-eyed loonies”.
He had to rely on the Ulster Unionist Party for key votes including successfully guiding the Maastricht Treaty on to the statute books.
He did this while simultaneously keeping the peace process – and behind the scenes contacts with the IRA – going.
Today, speaking on BBC Radio 4, he said the peace is still “fragile” and repeated widely held fears that a Tory-DUP pact could mean the British government could no longer be seen as an impartial, honest broker.
It was Major’s then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke in the 1990s who gave one of the fundamental key-note speeches of the peace process that the British government had no selfish, strategic interest in Northern Ireland and wanted to bring peace and stability.
“People regard the peace process which was very hard earned over very many years by a lot of people, people shouldn’t regard it as a given, it isn’t certain, it is under stress, it is fragile.
“Although I don’t expect it suddenly to collapse, because there’s a broad consensus that wishes it to continue, I think we have to take care with it and take care that everything we do does not exaggerate the underlying differences that still are there in the Northern Ireland community.”
He said he was “concerned”, “wary” and “dubious…both for peace process reasons but also for others reasons as well”.
He wanted Theresa May to “succeed” and “stay” as Prime Minister but said his “main concern” is the peace process.
He said: “A fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland.
“The danger is that however much any government tries they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal at Westminster with one of the Northern Ireland parties, and you never know in what unpredictable way events will turn out, and we cannot know if that impartiality is going to be crucial at some stage in the future.”
The “only honest broker can be the UK government”, he said.
“The question arises, if they cease to be seen as such by part of the community in Northern Ireland, then one can’t be quite certain how events will unwind and that worries me a great deal about the peace process.”
He said he foresees problems “getting the Northern Ireland executive together”, and about “the reintroduction of anything that remotely resembled a hard border”.
Sir John, who campaigned in Northern Ireland for a Remain vote in last year’s referendum, alongside his successor as PM Tony Blair, said reintroducing the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland after Brexit would be “catastrophic” for the peace process.
“I simply think you need to be very wary of what could happen and therefore be very cautious about what you do, so that does concern me quite apart from my other concerns about an agreement with the DUP.”
“Here, with the peace process, we need to be prepared for the unexpected, we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
“The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hardmen, who are still there lurking in the corners of the communities, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence.
“We really need to do everything we conceivably can to make sure that that doesn’t happen, and that does require an impartial UK government.”
Meanwhile DUP leader Arlene Foster said after meeting Mrs May at 10 Downing Street she expected a formal deal “soon”.
Mrs May and Ms Foster met for more than an hour.
Before visiting Number 10, Mrs Foster met her 10 MPs for a photocall in Westminster.
After the meeting with Mrs Foster the Prime Minister left Number 10 and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn congratulated Mrs May on “returning as PM” and said he “looked forward to this Parliament, however short it may be”.
He joked that he welcomed the prospect of a Queen’s Speech once this “coalition of chaos has been negotiated”, but said if this did not happen, he was “ready to offer strong and stable leadership in the national interest”.