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Tony Blair was keen to move his Premier League football team to Belfast in the late 1990s, Northern Ireland files reveal | UK News

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Several newly released documents from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland give an insight into the nature of the country’s changing politics at the end of the 1990s, including the then Prime Minister’s proposals to Wimbledon FC.

by Megan Harwood-Baynes, Digital Investigative Reporter @Meg Baines

Thursday 28 December 2023 12:29, United Kingdom

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was keen to move a Premier League football team to Belfast in the late 1990s, previously classified state documents have revealed.

A government document written in 1997 said the move was a “significant step forward” for Belfast and would “build strong cross-community support and bring positive cohesion to a divided city. It should be possible to do so.”

This note then suggested that Premier League team Wimbledon FC would undergo a name change to Belfast United after their move from south London.

A modern 40,000-seater sports stadium and potentially a sports academy could also be built, largely funded by the private sector, on Queen’s Island in east Belfast or on the North Foreshore in the city’s north. It became a topic of discussion.

Memo dated 16 July 1998 – Just a few months after the Belfast/Good Friday deal was signed, Mr Blair indicated he was keen on the idea.

His view was: “It would be great if Wimbledon moved to Belfast. We should encourage this as much as possible.”

At the time – as it still is – Northern Ireland did not have a team in the English Football League.

Wimbledon FC had been based in south London since 1912, but had not had a permanent base since 1991 following Taylor’s report on ground safety. However, with players like Vinnie Jones in the team, they were seeing crowds of up to 18,000 at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park.

Another memo, dated August 17, 1998, said the matter was at a “delicate stage” and recorded that Irish football authorities “continue to strongly resist the idea”.

Local leaders feared this could “kill the game in Northern Ireland”.

This idea never materialized and Wimbledon FC remained in England, moving to Milton Keynes in 2002 and becoming MK Dons, and later a new Wimbledon team, AFC.

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Several newly released files from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland also provide insight into the changing nature of politics in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

Other discoveries from the archives include:

• In 1999, Mr Blair put plans to review Northern Ireland’s abortion laws “on ice”. He said it would take more than 20 years for these laws to be changed.
•After 9/11 there were fears of a nuclear or chemical attack in Northern Ireland.
•One kilogram of heroin arrived in Ballymena every month in 1997.

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