LONDON (AP) — Two former British prime ministers placed their political rivalries aside Thursday to warn that leaving the European Union could undermine the Northern Ireland peace deal and jeopardize the unity of the United Kingdom.
John Major and Tony Blair shared a platform at the Ulster University campus in Londonderry to underscore their concern that a decision to leave the 28-nation bloc in the June 23 referendum would shake a fragile peace deal. Both men were instrumental in forging a peace process in Northern Ireland after years of conflict.
Major, the former Conservative leader, worked alongside the Irish government to spur the Irish Republican Army's 1994 cease-fire, while his Labour successor Blair opened the door for the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party to enter negotiations on Northern Ireland's future that produced the British territory's 1998 peace pact.
Today, the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein help lead a unity government alongside leaders of the British Protestant majority.
"I believe it would be an historic 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.
Blair argued that investors would be less likely to invest, jeopardizing a key element of stability.
He said Northern Ireland's stability "is poised on carefully constructed foundations. And so we are naturally concerned at the prospect of anything that could put those foundations at risk."
The 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland reflects the reality that both the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. are part of the European Union. The settlement includes the creation of cross-border institutions to promote cooperation — and a British exit would make it harder to keep these programs going.
Both also warned that a British exit — known as Brexit — could lead to the breakup of the U.K., which is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The fear is that Scots would vote to remain in the EU, while other parts of Britain would vote to leave — a split that could hasten another referendum on Scottish independence.
Major said "the unity of the United Kingdom itself is on the ballot paper."
"If we throw the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw up in to the air, no one can be certain where they might land."
Northern Ireland "leave" campaigners condemned the remarks. Democratic Unionist Party lawmaker Nigel Dodds said talk of threats to the peace process was "dangerous, destabilizing and it should not be happening."
The rhetoric on both sides of the debate is under growing scrutiny as referendum day approaches. On Thursday a respected Conservative lawmaker switched sides, saying she now supports staying in the bloc because the "leave" campaign has been lying about how much money Britain pays the EU.
Sarah Wollaston, a doctor who heads the House of Commons health committee, said a claim that Britain sends the EU 350 million pounds ($505 million) a week is "a financial lie."
The figure does not include Britain's rebates. The net U.K. contribution is about half that.
The "leave" group has emblazoned the figure on its campaign bus and claims leaving the EU would mean the money could be spent on Britain's overburdened National Health Service.
Wollaston said it was "shameful" to build a campaign on deceit, and leaving the EU would cause "economic turmoil" and hurt the health service.
Associated Press Writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this story.