The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

John Major’s Commons Statement on the Northern Ireland Peace Process – 12 February 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Northern Ireland Peace Process.The statement was made in the House of Commons on 12th February 1996.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the bomb explosion in the South Quay area of London last Friday, the declared end to the IRA ceasefire and the implications for security and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

There is no doubt that the evil act in London was the work of the IRA. It has all the hallmarks of its operations, with the callous sacrifice of innocent lives. The bomb followed shortly after an IRA statement, given to the Irish broadcasting organisation on the evening of 9 February, that the complete cessation of hostilities ordered in August 1994 was now at an end. The IRA admitted its responsibility for the bomb on 10 February.

The facts of the incident are briefly these. Around 5.45 pm last Friday, warning calls were made that a large bomb had been placed at South Quay station, Marsh Wall, in London. Local police arrived at the scene shortly after 6 o’clock, and anti-terrorist branch officers shortly after that.

At around 6.30 pm a suspect vehicle, a Ford flat-backed lorry, was identified, and the immediate area was cleared. While the area was being evacuated, the vehicle exploded, causing extensive damage to buildings in the area, and a large number of casualties. Two people were killed and 43 injured, two of them critically. Three police officers were among the casualties. I know that the House will join me in extending our deepest sympathy to all the innocent victims and their families. It is little short of a miracle that the casualty list was not much longer.

I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of the emergency services. Despite being hampered by a fractured gas main at the scene, they responded magnificently and they richly deserve all our thanks.

I must say to the House that this may not be the last such atrocity. More may follow, both here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, if the IRA ceasefire is not renewed. We will do all that we can to prevent that and to catch those responsible. The protection of the public will remain our first priority.

In Great Britain, security has immediately returned to pre-ceasefire levels. In Northern Ireland itself, we had been careful from the very first moment of the ceasefire to take no irreversible steps to downgrade our security capability. All necessary measures to cope with the present situation are now in place. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is on full alert. We have sought to make an appropriate and proportionate response to the increased threat without disrupting daily life more than absolutely necessary.

The IRA has brought the 17-month-old ceasefire to an end. There is no shred of an excuse for this return to violence, least of all now, when all-party negotiations were clearly in sight. After the August 1994 ceasefire declaration, we called repeatedly on the IRA to make it clear that it was permanent, despite criticism by some for doubting the good faith of the IRA. We did doubt its good faith and the IRA did not say that it was a permanent ceasefire. None the less, after a prudent period, in order to move the process forward we were prepared to act on the working assumption that the ceasefire would last.

In the months that followed, we reduced the more visible and inconvenient aspects of security. We took soldiers off the streets and opened all the border crossing points. We did everything possible to create new jobs in Northern Ireland through renewed inward investment, and we helped to produce a remarkable economic upsurge. We talked to Sinn Fein leaders at official and at ministerial level. We constantly sought to move the peace process forward towards the all-party negotiations that everyone knows are necessary.

No one took more risks for peace than the Government over the past two years, but we never lost sight of the fact that the IRA commitment had not been made for good. No responsible Government could have done otherwise. That was why we and many others saw a start to the decommissioning of illegal arms as a way of creating confidence in Sinn Fein’s acceptance of democratic peaceful methods, and showing that the violence had really ended. But all the time that Sinn Fein was calling for all-party talks, we knew that the IRA continued to train and plan for terrorist attacks. Punishment beatings and killings continued, as the House well knows. It remained ready to resume full-scale terrorism at any time. We could never be confident that its behaviour was that of an organisation that had decided to renounce violence for ever. The IRA peace was not a true peace.

I regret to say that the events of last Friday showed that our caution about the IRA was only too justified. The timing of the return to violence may have been surprising: the fact that violence could resume was not. We must now continue the search for permanent peace and a comprehensive political settlement in Northern Ireland. Let there be no doubt that the Government’s commitment to that is as strong as ever, and will remain as strong as ever.

We will work for peace with all the democratic political parties and with the Irish Government. But a huge question mark now hangs over the position of one of the parties–over Sinn Fein. Its leaders have spoken often of their commitment to peace and peaceful methods, but they have always ducked and weaved when they have been questioned about the IRA and its methods. After the events of last Friday, their ambiguity stands out starkly. The test for eligibility to take part in all-party negotiations was set by the British and Irish Governments in paragraph 10 of the Downing Street declaration. They should be democratically mandated parties, which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process.

Sinn Fein’s leaders claim that they did not know about the bomb at South Quay and the IRA’s ceasefire statement, but they have refused either to condemn or to dissociate themselves from either. Sinn Fein must decide whether it is a front for the IRA or a democratic political party that is committed to the ballot and not the bullet. Meanwhile, one thing is clear: in the absence of a genuine end to this renewed violence, meetings between British Ministers and Sinn Fein are not acceptable and cannot take place.

That is also the position of the Irish Government. They have made it clear to Sinn Fein that their attitude and willingness to meet at political level will be determined by whether the IRA ceasefire is restored. We and the Irish Government are at one on this: the ball is in the court of Sinn Fein and the IRA, if indeed that distinction means anything. It is for them to show through their words and actions whether they have a part to play in the peace process. I am not in the business of slamming doors, but the British and Irish peoples need to know where Sinn Fein stands.

The people of a democracy are not passive spectators to events. They have the right to make their views clear on these issues, and the people of Northern Ireland, from both communities, have consistently done so. The popular will for peace has never been clearer or more coherently expressed than in recent months. The peace process will go on. I commend all those who have had the courage and the sense, in the face of this latest atrocity, to work to prevent a wider return to violence.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have met all the parties in the past two weeks. That process will be intensified with the parties that have not, for the present, disqualified themselves. The aim is, as it has always been, to establish the necessary confidence to enable negotiations between all the parties to begin. I want everyone to be absolutely clear on that point. The objective of all our actions and policies, before and since the ceasefire, has been to get to a position in which all the constitutional and democratic parties can get around the table together. Everything else is a means to that essential end.

On 24 January, I told the House that, if the paramilitaries would not start decommissioning their illegal arms, one alternative way forward was through elections, to give the electoral mandates and confidence that could lead straight, and straight away, to negotiations. As proposed by the Mitchell report, decommissioning could go ahead in parallel with those negotiations. The proposal has been consistently misrepresented by Sinn Fein, and it has been misunderstood more widely. I repeat now that its purpose is to lead directly and speedily to negotiations between all the parties that are committed to peaceful and democratic methods, and it is aimed at reaching a comprehensive political settlement.

An elected body would have to be broadly acceptable and it would be strictly time limited. I am not proposing–as I have made clear on many occasions–an assembly with legislative and administrative powers. Any suggestion of a return to old-style Stormont rule is manifest nonsense on the basis of the proposals that we have put forward. The proposed elections are a door to full negotiations, and I continue to believe that they provide the most promising available opening. We will pursue that proposal and seek to persuade all concerned that it is indeed a way forward and not a means of delaying progress.

Our ideas are still being discussed with the parties. I should like to reassure the House that there are ways forward to negotiations with all the parties, which could include Sinn Fein–but only, of course, if there is an unequivocal return to the ceasefire. Others, including the Irish Government, have ideas, too. Our minds are not closed, and neither, I know, are theirs. I have talked to the Taoiseach twice since the bombing, and we plan to meet soon in London to discuss all the possibilities. I intend to find a way through to the negotiations, with all those who are committed to democracy.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has received a serious setback from the men of violence, but the process is not over–not by any means. We have seen the benefits of what has been achieved since the ceasefire: the freedom to live and to work normally; the freedom to enjoy life; increased prosperity and new jobs; and new hope for the future of the people of both communities in Northern Ireland. Those benefits must not lightly be thrown away.

This Government will not be deterred by terrorism. The people of Northern Ireland have tasted peace–a peace that has changed their lives. I have told the House before that I will leave no stone unturned in the search for peace. That is true today, and it will remain true in the future. The people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland deserve no less than that.