“The most successful Union in history would be broken apart.” Major and Blair’s message from Magee in Derry

Derry was an interesting venue to chose for two former prime ministers to defend the Union against the threat of Brexit.  In one sense it was powerful symbolism to see them together, as the Guardian says.

– Snap verdict: Of all the Remain media events we’ve seen, that was probably one of the most effective. Sir John Major and Tony Blair may seem like figures from the distant past, but in 1997 around three quarters of the British electorate voted for parties led by either one or other of them. People generally like seeing political opponents come together.

But Northern Ireland and Ireland are peripheral to the main arguments  (even though TB’s mother was born and reared only 60 miles from where he was speaking).  To chose anywhere in Northern Ireland over Scotland as the venue to warn against the breakup of the Union might seem perverse.  But to present the case for the Union in Scotland would have cut across the Remain argument championed by the SNP and could have actually harmed the cause. So Scotland was out.

So why not England itself?  Well, Tony is toxic over Iraq and much else and John has lost the lost the above-the-battle appeal of a former PM due to his violent attacks on the Leave side in his own party.

So that left Northern Ireland, the scene of some of their greatest triumphs where neither party nor either former prime minister is particularly controversial . Both of them were careful not to be specific about  threats to the peace process. It was more about going back to the border and the effects on the common travel area, the spectre of tariffs and the threat to  foreign direct investment – (to the UK; so maybe all the more of it for the Republic?) .

It was also that Brexit would start a bout of referendum fever, beginning with a demand for a second referendum in Scotland. Sinn Fein could hardly stand idly by and would have to join the referendum club. That  would have an unsettling effect on the unionist/nationalist relationship. Both of them put it less specifically.

Major. I believe it would be an historic mistake to do anything that has any risk of destabilising the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins stability in Northern Ireland” he said. Mr Major warned that the “wrong outcome on June 23rd could “tear apart” the UK. “If we throw the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw up in to the air, no one can be certain where they might land.”

Blair. Mr Blair hit out at the Leave campaign, claiming it puts an “ideological fixation” with Brexit ahead of the damage it would cause. “I say, don’t take a punt on these people. Don’t let them take risks with Northern Ireland’s future. Don’t let them undermine our United Kingdom.

“We understand that, although today Northern Ireland is more stable and more prosperous than ever, that 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.”

One of them might have acknowledged that any change from Union to Irish unity would also  be ultimately decided by referendums. But these  would be held at our pace and under our own conditions in this island and not as a response mainly to pockets of English nationalism.

The referendum is the best example since the Sunningdale agreement of a GB agenda running directly counter to NI interests. Once again,  unionists are on the other side.

 DUP MP Nigel Dodds “Surely this is the most irresponsible talk that can be perpetuated in terms of Northern Ireland – very dangerous, destabilising and it should not be happening,”

Thankfully, the outcome for our internal affairs is likely to be different this time.

While the two former PMs chose not  to make any soothing references to nationalist opinion, this was an appeal on behalf of the Union that nationalists are unlikely  to denounce – and not only because nationalism opposes Brexit in the interest of both parts of Ireland. Major’s and Blair’s version of the modern Union is one they can live with.  That is one measure of how far we have come. I

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London