Major and Blair Warn Northern Ireland About Brexit Risks

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  • Former premiers says exit from EU could threaten peace process
  • Brexit may also threaten union with second Scots referendum

Tony Blair: Brexit Vote Has 'Seismic Consequences'

Former British Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair together warned that Brexit could threaten peace in Northern Ireland and raise the prospect of fracturing the U.K.

The political foes renewed the push to keep Britain in the European Union by saying the peace settlement they negotiated in Northern Ireland will be under threat if Britain leaves the bloc, and that such a vote would likely lead to a second Scottish referendum. Their intervention came hours after Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne reiterated his warnings on the consequences for the economy, saying there is "a lot to be scared about."

"It would be a dreadful mistake to do anything that has any risk of destabilizing the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins stability in Northern Ireland," Major said in a speech Thursday at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. “But that is what a British exit from the EU would do: it would throw all of the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw into the air again, and no one could say where they might land.”

Standing alongside his Tory predecessor, Blair said a vote to leave the EU on June 23 would present a “new unique situation.”

“The Republic of Ireland remains in the European Union, the U.K. leaves the European Union; so then what happens to the common travel area?” the former Labour leader asked. “When you go to the detail, you realize how difficult if not impossible that is, because of course if the U.K. were to leave the EU then the border with the Republic becomes the border of the European Union.”

Their comments follow similar warnings from Prime Minister David Cameron, who has sought to sway voters by saying Brexit could endanger peace in Europe and almost certainly lead to voters in Scotland demanding another referendum on breaking away from the U.K.

Clinton Plea

The call for Northern Irish voters to keep Britain in the EU was echoed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, another key player in the peace process.

Northern Ireland has “benefited from the U.K.’s membership in the European Union, and I worry that the future prosperity and peace of Northern Ireland could be jeopardized if Britain withdraws,” he wrote in an article for the New Statesman magazine.

But Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who backs an exit from the EU, said the suggestion Brexit would reverse the peace process was "highly irresponsible."

"The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland believe their future should only ever be determined by democracy and consent and not by violence,” she said. “I very much hope figures who played such an important role in the peace process would not suggest that a Brexit vote would weaken that resolve in any way."

The “Remain” camp’s emphasis on political instability comes amid concerns its message on the economic consequences of leaving the EU is not getting through to voters, as the Brexit campaign’s focus on immigration seems to be helping it gain momentum. Late on Wednesday, Osborne hit back at claims he’s trying to frighten people into voting to stay in the EU.

‘Lose Control’

“If we vote to leave, then we lose control,” he said in an interview with BBC Television. “If we lose control of the economy, we lose control of everything. People should be under no illusions.”

Both camps have been criticized for misrepresenting facts in a campaign that’s split the ruling Conservative Party. “Leave” suffered an additional blow on Wednesday with the defection of one of its members, Conservative Sarah Wollaston, who is now backing staying in the EU.

The lawmaker attacked Vote Leave’s claim that Brexit would free up 350 million pounds ($500 million) a week for the National Health Service. The assertion has already been labeled misleading by the House of Commons Treasury Committee, which has asked the campaign to stop using the slogan.

‘Financial Lie’

“They have knowingly placed a financial lie at the heart of their campaign, even emblazoning it on their battle bus alongside the NHS branding to imply a financial bonanza,” Wollaston, who chairs Parliament’s Health Committee, wrote on her website. “Far from a ‘Leave’ dividend there would be an economic penalty and the NHS would suffer the consequences.”

Osborne said market turbulence would erupt in the “hours and days” after a vote to quit the EU. And there was no guarantee the Bank of England would be able to cut interest rates to prop up the economy as policy makers may be fighting resurgent inflation caused by a depreciating pound. “You can’t take it for granted,” he said.

He dismissed the claims of some Brexit supporters that Turkey will soon join the EU, giving its 80 million people the freedom to live and work in Britain. The chancellor, 45, said the country would not be part of EU in his “lifetime.” The remarks prompted Vote Leave to demand a clarification of the government position on Turkish accession.

— With assistance by Thomas Penny

(Updates with comments from Blair, Bill Clinton starting in fourth paragraph.)
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