Belfast Telegraph

Johnson should learn from Major's experience with Northern Ireland peace negotiations, says Powell

John Major (Anthony Devlin/PA)
John Major (Anthony Devlin/PA)
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

Boris Johnson should learn from the experience of former prime minister John Major, who was forced to drop demands for IRA decommissioning before entering talks, Jonathan Powell has said.

Mr Johnson is refusing to talk to the EU until it concedes on his demand of dropping the backstop to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

Writing in the Financial Times, Mr Powell — who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff and main negotiator on Northern Ireland — said setting preconditions to a negotiation “is almost always an error” and that the prime minister will either face a “humiliating climbdown” or the prospect of no negotiations taking place at all before the deadline of October 31.

“He should learn from the experience of his predecessor John Major, who was forced to drop his demand that the IRA decommission its weapons before entering negotiations,” Mr Powell wrote.

“The 1994 IRA ceasefire was not ‘permanent’, as the Government had hoped, and the British did not want to find themselves negotiating in the face of the threat of renewed violence.”

Repeated demands for decommissioning fell on deaf ears, and the Government eventually accepted Sinn Fein having a seat at the table without giving up a single weapon.

“Mr Johnson has set himself a similar trap, even if with a very different sort of negotiating partner,” Mr Powell said.

“There is no chance of the EU dropping the backstop as a precondition for meeting him, even if they were prepared to discuss it face to face. And, as long as the British Government does not put forward a convincing alternative to deal with the threat posed to the Good Friday Agreement by Britain leaving the single market and the customs union and thereby recreating a hard border, the EU cannot back down.”

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