Alastair Campbell – Securing peace in Northern Ireland was one of our greatest achievements

By Alastair Campbell

Former Downing Street Press Secretary, and part of the Blair team that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in 1998


*An abridged version of this appeared in The Daily Record and The Scotsman on 10/04/18*



TWENTY years ago today, something miraculous came together and the Good Friday Agreement was born.

Securing peace in Northern Ireland was incredibly difficult, but it ranks as one of the greatest and most important achievements of the last Labour government.

Almost from the day Tony Blair took office, Northern Ireland became a priority, and it never stopped being a priority. Building on work that had begun under John Major, we were convinced a peace once described as impossible was there for the taking, provided we got the different sides to agree to certain principles, then leave the rest to hard work, commitment and negotiation.

There were moments in the months and years after when it still felt like everything could fall apart, but a remarkable group of people on all sides of the debate, with support from around the world, was determined to prevent that.

Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreement, at a time the political process remains fragile and the institutions in abeyance, there is the terrifying prospect that Brexit could turn back the clock and put at risk the peace and prosperity that all that hard work helped deliver. Terrifying not least because it is clear that to the Brextremist ideologues no price is too high to get out of Europe, and that would include an Agreement that to them, today, is more of an irritant than an essential building block of peace.

To hear Jacob Rees-Mogg say that the solution to the unsolved border issue is for Ireland to follow the UK out of the EU, or Daniel Hannan say that the Agreement was a consequence not a cause of peace, is to realise not merely how little they understand the issues at stake, but how little they care alongside their blinding passion for Brexit at any cost. It is one thing, however, to have hard right anti-European ideologues paying so little heed to the dangers to the Agreement. It is quite another when the Prime Minister, her embarrassment of a Foreign Secretary, and her Brexit ministers, are playing the same dangerous game.

There is a good reason why both sides of the negotiations are struggling to find a solution to the border issue. There isn’t one. Theresa May has said it can be like the border between Canada and the US? Has she been there? How does that square with her acceptance that there can be no border infrastructure, because there is infrastructure aplenty in North America? Others say it will be like the German, French and Italian borders with Switzerland. I drove over two of those borders – out of France, into Italy – last week. The huge queues of lorries at both was evidence that this model doesn’t allow for the ‘frictionless’ border the Brextremists claim technology or some other fantasy can deliver.

How, when we are out of the EU, and Ireland remains in, (we can be assured they will not be heeding the Rees-Mogg advice) can the only land border between two separate political and economic entities be free of any border infrastructure, or ‘frictionless’? There is no answer to that question. And if a solution is found to prevent a border on the island of Ireland, it effectively moves to the Irish Sea – with huge implications for Scotland.

Mrs May and the Brextremists who drive her strategy are hoping that simply by agreeing to the desire not to have such a border, they can get us out by March 2019, and leave the detail to the transition period. But that is playing with fire. For us to leave, without knowing exactly how these new border arrangements will work for new times, would be reckless, irresponsible and dangerous. It is one of the many reasons why the deal she brings back should be put to a People’s Vote, given even the Cabinet cannot agree on what ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ actually means.

In any event, the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t about cameras and trade, but a political settlement that recognised the rights of both unionists and nationalists, and the importance of economic and cultural links between the North and the Republic. That there are people willing to undermine that is deeply troubling.

I find it incredible that Theresa May is prepared to risk going down in history as the Tory Prime Minister who not only undid Margaret Thatcher’s project of completing the Single Market, but also undermined John Major’s achievements in Northern Ireland.

But while the Tories are the architects of Brexit, as things stand it is the Labour opposition which history will write as its handmaiden. Jeremy Corbyn is not in power. But he does have power, not least given the Parliamentary arithmetic that followed Mrs May’s doomed attempt to win landslide support for hard Brexit. Yet he seems reluctant to use that power to shift the government’s course. Indeed, he seems as hellbent on Brexit at any price as she does. He prides himself on being the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had. So why has he done so little to challenge the drift to this hard-right hard Brexit that the Johnsons, Goves, Duncan-Smiths, Redwoods, Rees-Moggs and Farages have forced on Mrs May?

Having dared to speak up for the millions of voters who remain anxious and fearful about Brexit, and those who want to put the final Brexit deal to a people’s vote, not least because they do not trust this government and this Parliament to do the right thing, Owen Smith was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn.

The party’s Brexit spokespeople in Westminster and Holyrood, Keir Starmer and Neil Findlay, refuse even to contemplate the possibility that the deal may be so bad for Britain that it will be worth revisiting the basic In or Out decision. Whatever the deal. Whatever the cost. It leaves one wondering whatever is the point of an opposition if we are just echoing the government on the biggest question facing the country for a generation?

Keir Starmer has set out six tests against which he says the Brexit deal should be judged. They barely figure in the debate, but we need to remind Labour of them again and again.

Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU? We don’t yet know what that future relationship will look like, but by definition it will be weaker and less collaborative than now.

Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union? No – the only way to do that is to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, as advocated by the Scottish Labour for the Single Market campaign.

Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities? Highly unlikely, and there are many parts of the UK – not least Scotland – where migration is vital for the economy.

Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their Brextremist allies have no interest in defending the rights that British workers enjoy as a result of being in the EU.

Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? It certainly won’t be easier, and the recent international action against Russia was clearly helped by Theresa May’s ability to be in the same room as our European neighbours.

Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? No. And the government’s own impact assessment papers make that perfectly clear, with cities in Scotland such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen likely to be among the hardest hit.

Corbyn claimed in February that negotiating a new UK-EU customs union would help to avoid any need for a hard border in Ireland. It would go some way towards that, certainly, but only if coupled with membership of the Single Market can we avoid any physical border checks. In any event, unless Labour stands up to the deal currently envisaged by Theresa May, it will be too late even for that.

The Brexit deal does not meet the tests set out either by May or by Starmer, yet Emily Thornberry, Barry Gardiner and others continue to make clear they expect that MPs will end up backing May when it comes to a vote this autumn. We really are in the most extraordinary position where most MPs, left to their own devices, would vote against what the government is proposing, by a considerable margin, but the frontbenchers of two main parties are locked in a deadly embrace to deliver something they both acknowledge will damage our lives and living standards. It is madness.

There are millions of people in Scotland and across the UK who share that view, that this is madness. Why are there so few in Parliament speaking up for them? And why are the leaders of the main parties so scared of the details of the deal – when we will know what Brexit meaning Brexit really does mean – being put to a People’s Vote?

Comments are closed.