The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Institute of Directors in Belfast – 30 March 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech, made to the Institute of Directors at Culloden Hotel, Hollywood, County Down on Wednesday 30th March 1994.


Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is just possible that some of you reading the newspapers may be surprised to see me here tonight. You really should not be. I have made many visits to Northern Ireland in the past, I intend to go on coming in the future and whenever possible I look forward to bringing Norma with me as well.

And I will tell you why, because you touched on it just briefly a moment or so ago. Northern Ireland is in the centre of my political interest and I promise you tonight that is precisely where I intend that it will stay in the future. In those visits I have made here to the Province I have seen a great deal of what happens in this particular part of the world. I have seen aircraft made at Shorts in Belfast; tee-shirts by the million at the Fruit of the Loom in Londonderry, indeed my son stole mine before I had been home for 5 seconds; I have shopped in Coleraine and in Larne; I have sung carols in St George’s Church, Belfast; last summer I had the pleasure, as your guest, Mr Chairman, of visiting the Castleward Opera. And on those visits and on many other occasions in London I have met your church leaders, your political leaders, many leaders of community groups, and as I am doing this evening, leading businessmen and their wives and families.

And above all, of course, I have had on these opportunities the good fortune to meet thousands of Northern Irish people from all walks of life. And on these occasions there have been two things that have particularly struck me: the first is the extraordinary warmth of Northern Ireland, in my experience, in their welcome and in their generosity, the people of Northern Ireland are second to none; and second, I have been invariably struck by how much is changing here and by how fast that change is occurring. The Northern Ireland of today is far removed from the images formed at a distance by many people, not just elsewhere in the United Kingdom, perhaps in many countries around the world. I would like to see far more people coming here to Northern Ireland to see precisely for themselves what is happening, to see the changes and to judge the opportunities that I believe are increasingly becoming apparent for the future.

I wish to turn in a moment to economic matters and then perhaps a little to security matters. But I want first, with your indulgence, to say a word or two about a topic of the moment, to say a word or two about Europe.

Throughout my time as Prime Minister the government has been taking a determined, a collective and a positive approach to Europe with clearly defined objectives. We intend to go on doing precisely that and if anyone is in any doubt of our course, I invite them to read again, if they have read it before, and for the first time if they have not, the article I wrote on holiday in Portugal last year that the Economist were kind enough to publish last September. That sets out our course.

Much of the comment I hear these days about Europe is, to be frank, a crude parody of the real debate we should be having. Much of it is Euro-nonsense, the simplicities of Europhobia and Euro-enthusiasm frankly short change the public on a debate that is vital to our future. I am neither phobe nor enthusiast but I am a Euro-realist seeking to secure our success across the European continent. Neither am I prepared to bend policy either to appease the phobe or to appease the enthusiast. I will seek the policy that I believe to be right and they may follow me or not, as they choose. I wish to see Europe succeed and I wish that to happen because it is vital to the interests of the United Kingdom that it does, because for us there is no alternative to playing a strong part in Europe and there is no future in petty insularity.

In an ideal world European problems would be decided through quiet, reasoned discussion. But that is not the way that Europe works and sadly at the moment it is not the way our domestic debate upon Europe is being conducted either. If you are to make progress in the European debate you must be prepared to fight very hard, you must fight for the best deal available to your interests and for your country. And of course in Europe we from the United Kingdom are just one of Twelve, we will not always get all that we want but we must carry on and step by step secure the changes that are of importance to us.

And that is what in recent days we have been doing over Europe’s voting system, despite the grotesque misrepresentation of events that many people will have read and seen. I learned long ago that the world outside Westminster is very different from the rather feverish atmosphere within. But even so you may be understandably confused to find the arcane question of qualified majority voting causing such banner headlines.

Let me say to you tonight, if we had decided, if the British government had decided to accept 27 as the blocking minority, there would have been outrage among many people and we would have been accused of not fighting for Britain’s interest. If we had blocked enlargement because we could not obtain 23 of the blocking minority, we would have thrown away a prime British foreign policy objective. And as it was, after tough negotiations, we secured enlargement and safeguards for Britain’s position. It was a fierce argument but at the end of that we did win agreement that the qualified majority voting system will be fundamentally reviewed at the 1996 intergovernmental conference.

We did not win all that we wanted for the transitional period until then but we have secured a legally binding obligation to respect minority positions and to protect our own position. A negotiation, any negotiation, certainly a negotiation among twelve within Europe, that requires often concessions on all sides and on this occasion an acceptable deal has been struck. In the circumstances known to the Cabinet I believe it was right to accept that deal.

And let me say tonight, I will go on striking deals for the United Kingdom if I think they are right, whatever the opposition to those deals may be. But a deal is only acceptable if it sticks and it is not acceptable to mis-use treaty provisions on health and safety to bring in social directives by the back door, it is not acceptable to try and circumvent the opt-out from the social chapter that I negotiated at the time of the Maastricht Treaty. We have discussed this matter with the Commission, they have given us assurances on this and they must keep to them scrupulously if confidence here is to be restored and our partners must respect both the letter and the spirit of the deal on majority voting.

If this deal were not to be upheld then nobody should expect the United Kingdom to continue the normal process of Community business. A deal is a deal, if deals are not respected then normal business becomes impossible.

But arguments over voting systems should not obscure the real progress that has been made: the establishment of a single market; the enlargement of the Union; the GATT deal, the biggest most important trade deal that the world has ever seen; steps to control the budget; reform of the Common Agricultural Policy; subsidiarity meaning 25 percent of Community legislation will either be repealed or reformed, by which I mean minimised; closer cooperation; foreign policy; and the fight against crime.

All those are practical areas of constructive cooperation with our partners in Europe in recent years and we would not have made headway on any one of those issues if we had not argued very robustly for our point of view. We will continue to seek to build the sort of the Europe which is important I believe to you and important to me. Because it is by engaging all our efforts that we can promote that crucial, that critical positive view of a decentralised, deregulated, less bureaucratic, more competitive outward looking European Union, a Union that is friendly to business and better able to compete successfully with the United States and Asia.

And there is no purpose with inside Europe in deciding that France can compete with Germany, can compete with Britain and can compete with Spain, the whole of Europe has to compete with Asia, with Japan and the United States and if it fails to do that then our livelihoods here in Northern Ireland and right the way across the European Union will be at risk. We seek a Union, a Union that makes a wider Europe of nation states, a Europe that works for the citizen, gives choice to the consumer and freedom to the traveller.

It is of course this Europe, important to all of us, it is important to business in Northern Ireland and so of course is the state of the economy to which I would now like to turn. It was a long recession, a deep recession, a difficult recession within many parts of the United Kingdom it has left its scars. But for the last 7 successive quarters we have been back in growth across the United Kingdom and that has given us the strongest recovery of any of the large European economies. So far the growth has been modest and steady rather than spectacular. But even so, in many ways it has been stronger and more secure than the first phase of the long recovery after the recession at the beginning of the 1980s. In manufacturing, for example, we have seen a much faster recovery in production this time. Productivity reached an all time high in January and we have been sharpening a competitive edge by keeping a far better grip on costs than either Germany or Japan.

But to realise their full potential, and unless we realise our full potential in a competitive world we will face difficulties in the decades ahead, but to realise their full potential all areas of the United Kingdom must improve their competitiveness. This morning I held a meeting of senior Ministers who are preparing a wide ranging White Paper on competitiveness, a White Paper of the sort we frankly have not seen for very many years. And we are looking at everything the government does, from one end of government to the other, to see what more we can do to help business in the United Kingdom win in world markets.

It is a very wide ranging review. Take prices for example, they are now rising less than for a generation, that has enabled us to bring borrowing costs down which are now among the lowest in Europe. It helps us bring our wage costs under control, today we have less than half the wage inflation of the 1980s.

And it has brought more industrial peace. These days of course we almost take that for granted, yet we are losing fewer days through strikes than at any time since records were first kept. And then of course one might take the jobs market. Unemployment remains far higher than any of us would wish, here in the Province and across the rest of the United Kingdom. But it is falling and it is falling at an earlier stage of the recovery than in the 1980s. In Northern Ireland it has come down by 6 percent over the last year and in the United Kingdom as a whole unemployment has dropped by well over 200,000 in the past year whilst across the rest of Europe it has still been rising, over 12 percent in France, over 20 percent in Spain, over 4 million unemployed in Germany, falling, thank goodness, in the United Kingdom.

And yet within that broad picture how is Northern Ireland doing? As you will know, it is doing rather well. Over the past 5 years Northern Ireland has out-performed the national economy. In the last decade 74,000 extra jobs have been created here – a 13 percent increase. Output and employment fell less here than in most other regions during the recession of the early 1990s and with recovery output and employment grew more rapidly than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I believe that this growth will be maintained.

Well over half the companies here expect to expand in 1994. You are having increasing, in some cases dramatic, success in attracting inward investment. Last year was one of the best your industrial development has ever had, and over the past 6 years United States companies alone have invested nearly 600 million pounds here, promoting nearly 5,000 jobs. And they come here, not out of charity, not out of goodwill, they come here because Northern Ireland is a good place in which to do business, they come here to share in success and we must continue to encourage this. You have world reaching companies, both large and small: Shorts, now privatised; highly successful medium sized companies like Desmonds, Powerscreen and Moy Park. Your economic well being of course is vital, it is important in its own right, but it is I believe doubly important because of its impact on political development.

In the past as you look down the long years of Irish history, hardship and economic injustice have played into the hands of extremists, the greater the prosperity of Northern Ireland, the better the prospects for peace. And that peace of course would bring still greater prosperity, it would bring a surge in business activity, in investment and in tourism, it would help us to relegate the bad times to the history books where I truly believe they now belong.

So let me turn for a few moments to political change and to the Joint Declaration. I find it extraordinary that some people are prepared to claim that we are indifferent to Northern Ireland and that we are prepared to abandon our interest in Northern Ireland. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have said that the British government has: “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” That phrase ought not to be perverted by anyone. As I am sure you will appreciate, the critical word there is “selfish”.

If the people of Northern Ireland were themselves democratically of their own free will to choose a different future for themselves in a united Ireland we would not stand in their way. We would not insist that for some strategic or economic reason Northern Ireland must remain in the United Kingdom. But the converse equally applies. For so long as the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland wish to be part of the United Kingdom the British government will uphold and support their right to be so. And that is of course precisely what we are doing and in saying that I do not just refer to the level of the government’s economic support.

For me violence in the counties of Northern Ireland is as intolerable as similar violence would be in any of the British counties. I believe that an exceptional effort needs to be made to end terrorism and move towards peace in Northern Ireland. There can be no time limit to that effort, it must go on for how ever long it may take.

We will spare no effort to oppose terrorism. The security forces have the resources, the leadership and the support that they need and they will continue to get it. They have also achieved a great many successes. We have worked steadily and effectively to improve cooperation with the Republic of Ireland on cross-border security. Security cooperation has never been closer or better or more effective than it is today although both governments are determined to make it yet more effective and the passage, for example, of the Irish Extradition Bill will be another significant step.

But it is not just enough to oppose the men of violence at either extreme. We must do more than that, we must demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that terrorism has no future, we must minimise support for it both here and in other countries, we must build and maintain a popular and confident consensus for peace, we must show those who might be tempted to sympathise that there is no valid cause and no conceivable excuse for violence, we must show that political objectives can be pursued by peaceful and political means on the basis of consent. And above all, for all the people of Northern Ireland, we must show there is a just and a democratic path which enjoys the overwhelming support of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Chairman, that was my aim in negotiating the Joint Declaration, it is a broad approach to Northern Ireland’s future which has received unprecedented backing, it has shown that the British and the Irish governments, leaders on both sides of the community and very large numbers of the people of Northern Ireland, and of the island as a whole, can subscribe to a single balanced set of principles.

Perhaps inevitably the Joint Declaration has been misunderstood or in some cases misrepresented by one group or another. Supporters of each tradition would have liked it tilted a little more in their direction and that perhaps in its own may be a back-handed testimony to the balance we have struck in that document. But it does not say what the solution must be and it does not rule out any outcome in advance. What it does say is that the future of Northern Ireland is to be determined by agreement and by consent.

Some have raised the fear that it creates new institutions. Mr Chairman, it does not. Some have said that it embodies the principle of joint authority, it does not. Some have said that it gives the veto on change, emphatically it does not. I have even been told that it undermines the consent principle and the constitutional guarantee, the truth is precisely the opposite, it reinforces the consent principle and the constitutional guarantee and it spells them out and it endorses them in the name of both governments. At one extreme it has been claimed that the Joint Declaration surrenders to IRA terrorism and would allow Sinn Fein to enter the political process without renouncing violence. It does no such thing. The British and the Irish governments have been categoric in saying that there must be a permanent end to violence before those who have supported it can begin to enter the political process.

And of course at the opposite extreme is the complaint that the joint declaration does not contain enough for nationalists, but that is not a view upheld by democratic nationalists or by the Irish government or by the people of Ireland as a whole. Over 80 percent of the people of Ireland say they support the joint declaration and they want the IRA to end violence now and for good.

The IRA have given no coherent response, they have continued their violence, they have boasted of their attacks and they have tried to confuse by talking simultaneously of a possible ceasefire. If the IRA think that either tactic will change the situation they are sadly mistaken. Temporary ceasefires are of course welcome for the peace of mind that they bring for a period but unless they become permanent and unless they become irrevocable they will not end the conflict. Sinn Fein cannot enter the political process until it has renounced violence for good and demonstrated that that is its policy. Sooner or later the Provisionals must come to appreciate that violence drives them up a blind alley. The only road that will take them forward is the road to democratic politics. The Joint Declaration stands and it shows exactly where the British and the Irish governments stand.

It is not a moveable peg and it will not be amended and it will not be renegotiated, and it is against this background that we have pressed ahead with the three stranded talks process. I know that progress in that arena has at times seemed frustratingly slow, it has to be, it surely must have done to you as well. But I think that perhaps is inevitable in a process designed to embrace two governments and the political parties across the spectrum. But by building patiently we have built well, we have now established large areas of potential agreement, we have a solid basis for future progress and we wish to use the three stranded talks to establish a more accountable form of government within Northern Ireland and a more productive relationship between the north and the south as well as between the British and the Irish governments.

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen. If I may quote Burke:

“You can never plan the future by the past”. I look at Ireland not as an Irishman but as someone who looks on this island and these counties with some affection. For too long Ireland has been a prisoner of its past, too many coffins pay grizzly tribute to what that past has been. One cannot begin to understand Ireland without understanding its history. History, tradition, culture, are vital parts of all our lives but perhaps nowhere in the world are they more important than in the island of Ireland.

Here in Northern Ireland things are changing, the economy has changed, it is open to the world as it has never been before, it is bringing in investment, it is sending out goods and services, it has brought very welcome change to your communities. And one need look, for example, no further than the remarkable improvement in Londonderry over the past decade or the new vigour in the industries and in Belfast. We can see that. Is it not surely time to look ahead politically as well as economically, to harness that deep desire that exists on both sides of the community for a more peaceful and a more prosperous life, to break away from a past of rigid confrontation and from the violence that has so savagely scarred the last quarter of a century.

Mr Chairman, nothing that has happened in the past three months has undermined my belief that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to live in peace. We should not let temporary set-backs discourage us or deflect us. This is not just a task for the politicians, it is a task for everyone who has the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart. The leaders of this generation, be they churchmen, politicians, community workers, opinion formers, businessmen, the leaders must help build a better life for the next generation. No-one here in this room and no sensible person in Northern Ireland would wish to see the next generation inflicted with the scars and the sadnesses of the last 25 years. The groundwork to make sure that that has not happened has been laid, it is there, it must be cherished and it must be built upon. We must maintain our resolve to carry the process through until we reach a lasting political settlement and the wider prosperity that surely will follow.

If I have an ambition for you and for me I would like people to look back at these early years in the 1990s, perhaps to look back from some years ahead, and say that at that time at the beginning of the 1990s the people of Ireland so demonstrated their concern for peace, so demonstrated their determination that the next generation would not suffer the privations that they have suffered, that they formed that massive constituency for peace that isolated and defeated those who would seek political ends through the gun and through the bullet. That is the opportunity that lies there for us now.

I would say to the people of Northern Ireland, don’t ever expect it will happen overnight but it will happen and with your will and your determination you can play the central part in making it happen and I hope and believe in this generation that that is what we can achieve.