Former British prime minister Tony Blair has warned that “constant” political disruption in Northern Ireland will create difficulties for its future within the United Kingdom.
Regarded as one of the key architects of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Mr Blair urged the DUP to restore stability by returning to Stormont and “make people comfortable with the status quo”.
“If people are comfortable with the status quo why change it?” he asked.
Giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster on Thursday, Mr Blair admitted he felt “anxious” about the North’s long-term future within the UK ‘union’ amid the political deadlock and increasing pressure for a referendum on a united Ireland.
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“I believe passionately that in the end the people of Northern Ireland will decide their own future,” Mr Blair told MPs.
“My preference is that Northern Ireland remains part of the Union. But it can only be that way, in my view, if people feel the status quo is something stable.
“I think the important thing is to get over this problem with the protocol, and if at all possible, to get back…to reform the Executive and, over time, deal with these issues.
“But the less stability there is in the system, the more it makes me anxious about the future.”
The committee is examining the effectiveness of the landmark agreement as it approaches its 25th anniversary next month.
Mr Blair said the deal, which was signed on Good Friday, 1998, and brought an end to the North’s Troubles, could never have happened without “real leadership” by each of the political parties.
“There was a new generation of leaders,” he added.
He singled out the “enormous role” played by the Irish government throughout the negotiations and “completely frank conversations” with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his team.
“The Irish government was basically always looking to be constructive. It was a great blessing. People forget that the British-Irish relationship was pretty horrible for quite a long period of time.”
Mr Blair also said he understood the “fear” within unionism that “everything is on a “slippery slope towards a united Ireland”.
“I was brought up very much in within a unionist household,” he told MPs, before recalling how his grandmother once referred to the former DUP leader Ian Paisley as a “great beacon”.
Referring to the growth in the cross-community Alliance Party – it is now the third largest party in the Assembly – Mr Blair said if the North’s “constant disruption and constant political difficulty” continue, then younger voters could turn to Alliance and “will make things more difficult for the union”.
The North has been without a functioning government for more than a year as the DUP refuses to re-enter the powersharing Executive until its concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements are dealt with.
The former UK prime minister insisted that the Windsor Framework deal represents the “most practical way forward” on the issue.
Responding to concerns raised by DUP MP Jim Shannon about how the Belfast Agreement relates to the framework, he said: “The problem is we’re trying to reconcile the inevitable different elements that come from Brexit and its impact on Northern Ireland.
“It was always going to be a difficult circle to square and the protocol and the Windsor agreement is an attempt to square it.”