Tony Blair wanted to relocate struggling Premier League club Wimbledon to Belfast in the late 1990s.
Previously classified government papers reveal the former Labour Prime Minister thought it an ‘excellent’ idea to encourage the south London club to move to Northern Ireland.
A memo from 1997, not long after Blair swept to power, is described as ‘following up earlier informal discussions about the possibility of an English Premier League football club relocating to Belfast.’
The city having an English Premier League club would be a ‘significant breakthrough’, the document said, and ‘should be able to build up strong cross-community support and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city.’
The note suggested renaming Wimbledon as Belfast United and building them a 40,000-seater sports stadium, funded principally by the private sector, either on Queen’s Island in east Belfast or the North Foreshore in the north of the city.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, pictured at the Football Association HQ in London in 1997, wanted to relocate Premier League club Wimbledon to Belfast during the late 1990s
Wimbledon had won the FA Cup in 1988 but had fallen upon hard times by the late 1990s
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Blair’s response recorded he thought it ‘would be excellent if Wimbledon were to move to Belfast and we should encourage this as much as possible.’
The story was leaked to the Belfast Telegraph, who reported that Secretary of State Mo Mowlam was backing the idea, which the government believed would bring fresh investment into Northern Ireland.
However, the memo also recorded strong local opposition in the football community amid concern it could ‘kill off the game in Northern Ireland.’
Downing Street chief press secretary Alistair Campbell noted that Wimbledon’s owner Sam Hammam had ‘explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin.’
It was noted Hammam wanted to gauge how serious the Belfast relocation idea was.
A further bulletin dated July 16, 1998 – a few months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed – provided Blair’s personal support for the proposal.
It was followed up on August 17, with the matter at a ‘delicate stage’ as the Irish football authorities ‘continued to resists the idea strongly.’
Television presenter Eamonn Holmes, from Belfast, and three local newspapers had been ‘active in collecting public support.’
Blair stands alongside the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern during the Northern Ireland peace process
Wimbledon chief Sam Hammam had looked into relocating the club to Dublin in the 1990s
The situation hadn’t much progressed by the time of the next exchange in April 1999.
A member of the Bring Premier League Soccer to Northern Ireland wrote that ‘difficult, intense open, honest debate, discussion and negotiation is required’ but the reward could be ‘indeed great and potentially magnificent. A situation similar to the peace process.’
The idea was eventually shelved and 1988 FA Cup winners Wimbledon eventually relocated to Milton Keynes and renamed as MK Dons in 2004.
A successor club, AFC Wimbledon, was founded by fans and has climbed the football pyramid. They currently play in League Two.
Another cache of newly-declassified documents released in 2022 revealed that Campbell wrote to Blair in 1998 suggesting an Old Firm match between Rangers and Celtic be staged in Belfast.
The file suggested the two sides could swap kits and wear their rival team’s colours for the match, not long before the vote on the Good Friday Agreement.
Alistair Campbell (right), former advisor to PM Tony Blair, wrote a letter in 1998 suggesting a match in Belfast between Celtic and Rangers (left) to publicise the Good Friday Agreement
Campbell said: ‘An idea. What about organising a match between Rangers and Celtic, in Belfast, in the final days of the referendum campaign?
‘It would be a unique event in its own right, but we could add to it by getting Celtic to wear Rangers strips, and Rangers to wear Celtic strips (though one or two of the Rangers players to my certain knowledge, may have difficulty with this).
‘However, both in terms of raising publicity for the campaign, and in sending out a message, it would be very powerful.
‘I have a direct into Celtic, while I can get Alex Ferguson to approach the Rangers end.
‘Before I proceed, do you and (Secretary of State) Mo (Mowlam) think it is worth pursuing even if, given end of season commitments, it may not be possible to get all the big names there?’
There is no record of anyone getting back to Campbell about the idea.