LONDON — Tony Blair had warm words for the EU and U.K.’s latest attempt to put their bitter row over Northern Ireland trade rules to bed — even as he warned that wider issues thrown up for the region by Brexit will be hard to square.
The former U.K. prime minister — who led the country for a decade from 1997 and was a key player in the Good Friday Agreement seeking to end conflict over Northern Ireland — has been a long-standing critic of Britain’s exit from the EU.
He warned ahead of the U.K.’s referendum that leaving the bloc could wreak havoc with the carefully calibrated setup in Northern Ireland. Unionist politicians in the region are currently boycotting the power-sharing government in objection to post-Brexit rules they see as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Speaking to MPs Thursday, Blair offered qualified praise for current U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s bid to square “a difficult circle” for the region through the new Windsor Framework inked with the EU. The deal tries to radically reduce customs bureaucracy on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and ease unionist concerns by offering more say over EU rules imposed on the region.
But Blair made clear that he believes some of the underlying tensions Brexit brings to Northern Ireland power-sharing are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, and warned that there is “no real answer to this problem.”
He added: “There’s no theoretical answer to it. There is a practical answer. And my reason for supporting what the government and this prime minister has done on the Windsor agreement is that I think it represents the most practical way forward that minimizes all the theoretical objections.
“It doesn’t remove them, but it means that … they should be in most circumstances, practically insignificant. And that is honestly the best I think you can do with this.”
Blair said both the Windsor Framework and the Northern Ireland protocol it seeks to bolster attempt “to reconcile the inevitable two different elements that come from Brexit and its impact on Northern Ireland” — the need to keep open the sensitive border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland while at the same time reassuring the EU its single market will be protected.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is currently poring over the Windsor Framework but is not expected to give its verdict until April. This week it sharpened its criticism of the new plan, but stopped short of an outright rejection.
‘Plague on politics’
Blair’s comments came at a grilling by the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee, which is digging into the institutions set up by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Blair said he doubted whether such a painstakingly negotiated accord could have been achieved in the era of social media, described by the ex-PM as “a plague on politics” that “makes life really difficult.”
And he said the peace agreement had been helped along by “a new generation of leaders” in Northern Ireland willing to have difficult conversations with their own backers.
“Each of them had to say things to their own followers that were uncomfortable, that people didn’t like, and that is the true mark of leadership,” Blair said. “Because any fool can tell the people that support you what they want to hear. It’s when you’re telling them what they don’t want to hear that the test of leadership is forged.”