Former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair preached unionism, peace and economic development, during a St Columb’s Day visit to Londonderry in the run up to the Brexit referendum on June 23.
The former premiers addressed a largely sympathetic audience of school pupils and interested onlookers in the Great Hall in Magee on Thursday June 9.
Margaret Thatcher’s immediate successor Major used the opportunity to voice concern about the prospects of a newly-hardened border in the event of Brexit, speaking from a spot just 30 minutes on foot from frontier back roads that were littered with dragons’ teeth during a more controversial visit of his to the city in May 1995.
And Mr Blair, the only Prime Minister, to have openly bombed another European country since both the Second World War and the foundation of the European Union, told the audience how the UK and Ireland’s joint membership of the EU had helped pave the way for peace here.
Although there were no republican protestors to throw gas cylinders at Mr Major’s cavalcade and Eamonn McCann didn’t attempt to execute a citizens’ arrest on Mr Blair, the pair were asked some pertinent questions by the school pupils present.
One young woman from Thornhill College asked Mr Major if the ‘Leave’ campaign had a point in declaring that Robert Schuman’s dream of trading our way to peace has soured, and become more about cosseting a European elite.
Mr Major replied by stressing his ‘non-elite’ credentials.
“I’m working class. I’m from Brixton. I lived there at a time when there was mass immigration. My family lived in two rooms in a multi-ethnic and from time-to-time multi-racial house, so I’m not part of the elite.
“And of course there are people across Europe who are elite but there are millions, out of 500million, who are in the European Union and are strong supporters of it.
“This is part of the nonsense of the ‘Leave’ campaign. That Europe is only for the elite.
“Well, let me talk about the United Kingdom. In 1973 when we entered the European Union, we were widely called, across Europe, ‘the sick man of Europe’.
“We have in the past few years been the best performing economy in Europe. And if present projections were to be proven, in 15 years or so, we will probably become the biggest economy in Europe, bigger than Germany, we’re already bigger than France.
“That has happened inside the European Union. Who benefited? Not just the elite but the vast majority of the people in the United Kingdom who lived in ‘the sick man of Europe’ and no longer do.”
Mr Major went on to enlist some odd bedfellows to make his ‘non-elite’ point.
“And all the people who have said to us that we’d be mad to leave, the World Bank, the OECD, the IFS, the Treasury, some of the greatest businessmen in the world, Michael Bloomberg...Bill Gates, they’re all wrong apparently and the ‘Leave’ campaign are right, that we should leave Europe. It isn’t so and Europe is not for the elite. It’s for you. It’s for your generation. It’s for future generations.”
Another young woman from Thornhill expressed another widely held scepticism about how leaving the EU could make the already chronic level of economic depression among poorer areas of the North West any worse.
“The main argument for the stay campaign is that the economy of Northern Ireland will suffer. My question is this: Northern Ireland already suffers from low wages, impoverished areas and unemployment at skyrocketed levels, so how would leaving make any difference to the Northern Ireland economy?” she asked.
Mr Blair fielded this one and suggested things would get worse in the case of Brexit due to markets being closed off.
“In Northern Ireland there are many challenges to overcome and in many parts of the UK. That’s clear. My old constituents in the North East would say the same.
“It’s the challenge of Governments to do what they can to change that situation.
“But if we were to vote to leave all these problems would become significantly worse because you’re then taking away the ability of Northern Ireland to attract investment, which comes from being part of the European Union.
“The whole debate really around this issue is: the ‘Leave’ people say, if we were to leave then, you know, we could stop all the migration coming in from the European Union because we could stop the movement of people. Well, first of all, they’d have to answer the Common Travel Area point.
“But secondly, if we want to go back into this market, if we wanted to protect the jobs in Northern Ireland, then we’d be in the same position as Norway is in, which is outside the European Union, but as the price of getting access to the EU markets, they have to allow the free movement of people and, by the way, they make roughly the same per capita contribution to the EU as we do.
“So, what I’m saying is, even if we remain, I think all these issues are still there to be tackled and we need to get more investment into Northern Ireland but if we pull out we make our economic challenges worse, the Europe funding that comes to us, doesn’t come to us, and instead of debating these challenges and how we meet them, we will end up trying to unpick relationships that were incredibly important to build.”
As one of the key architects of the Belfast Agreement, Mr Blair also indicated that membership of the EU had helped cement the peace here.
“We could come together, in part, because we were both members of the European Union. So Europe played an important part in that. These things took a long time to put together and it’s foolish, profoundly foolish to take any sort of risk with those foundations of stability.
“In addition to that Europe was also an important part of the context, in which we were able to make peace in Northern Ireland.”