John Major hits out at 'breathtaking ignorance' of some unionists over Brexit

Albert Reynolds and John Major made an 'unlikely partnership'. Picture by Phil Noble/PA Wire

FORMER British prime minister John Major has attacked the "breathtaking ignorance" of unionists who are opposed to the backstop in the Brexit deal.

Giving the first Albert Reynolds Memorial Lecture in Co Longford yesterday, the ex-Tory leader also said violence could return if Ireland has to face a hard border.

"Those who mock and disparage the backstop should reflect on the risks of destroying it and stop relying on uninvented fanciful alternatives that for now exist absolutely nowhere," he said.

"At stake is not only community relations but security and with it lives as well.

"We should never forget that the Troubles began in the 1960s with the murder of customs officials at the north-south border."

Britain's Prime Minister John Major, left, and taoiseach Albert Reynolds during a press conference in Dublin in 1993. Picture by AP/Dave Caulkin

Speaking ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Downing Street declaration on Saturday, Mr Major said despite yesterday's decision to defer the Brexit vote in the House of Commons he expected that a majority of MPs would vote in favour of a soft Brexit.

"Whatever may happen at Westminster this week or later, I do not myself believe a majority of members of Parliament at Westminster will permit a hard border to become a reality," he said.

"The reckless few... are in a clear minority and for good reason."

He said it was in Ireland and Britain's economic interests to ensure there is no hard Brexit.

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Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said Europe provided the shared space where Albert Reynolds and Mr Major developed a relationship which ushered in a new era in Anglo-Irish relations.

Micheál Martin said Brexit meant the loss of Europe as a 'shared forum' that needed to be addressed. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Welcoming Mr Major, Mr Martin said Mr Reynolds and the former British prime minister made "on the face of it an unlikely partnership" yet the Dublin/London axis they led "became so strong that it was capable of making unquestionably historic progress".

"They shared an ability to reach beyond traditional barriers and were willing to take risks in the interests of the common good – they knew how to build and use trust," he said.

Mr Martin said the pair had shown how a strong relationship between the Irish and British governments is "pivotal to achieving serious progress on the many issues of concern to both of our countries".

He said the two leaders laid the foundations which enabled their respective successors to secure peace with the Good Friday Agreement.

"The next significant point I think we should remember from the Reynolds/Major partnership is how important Europe has been as a shared space for our countries to develop their relationship," he said.

"It was at meetings of finance ministers that they first got to know each other and started working together on joint concerns."

Mr Martin said the loss of "this shared forum" because of Brexit created a challenge that needed to be addressed.

He said the partnership between the two men was also a reminder of the "value of substance over presentation in true leadership".

"Both struggled to master rapidly speeding news cycles and the growing demand for a rapid response and judgement on everything, however they kept their eyes firmly fixed on trying to move everyone forward," he said.

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