The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on Northern Ireland – 28 February 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s statement to the House of Commons on the situation in Northern Ireland, made on 28th February 1996.


With your permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the Anglo-Irish summit earlier today and its implications for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach and I met in Downing Street this afternoon and agreed a way forward set out in our communique, copies of which I hope by now will have been placed in the Library of the House. Let me summarise the main points of the approach.

First, both Governments condemn unreservedly the IRA abandonment of the ceasefire and subsequent acts of terrorism, and call for the immediate and unequivocal restoration of that ceasefire.

Secondly, we have confirmed that the two Governments will have no ministerial dialogue with Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is restored.

Thirdly, we and the Irish Government will conduct further intense consultations with the parties between now and mid-March. After that, this Government will bring forward for consideration by this House appropriate legislation for the elective process and we will take other decisions necessary for the peace process to take place. As the communique makes clear, the Irish Government can support an elective process that is broadly acceptable.

Fourthly, both Governments reaffirm their commitment to all-party negotiations with a comprehensive agenda. These will be convened on 10 June, following a broadly acceptable elective process. Whether those negotiations will include Sinn Fein will depend on whether the ceasefire has been restored. Fifthly, we have agreed that, at the beginning of the negotiations, in order to build confidence, all participants, including Sinn Fein if the ceasefire has been restored, will need to make clear their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the Mitchell report, and to address also at the beginning of the negotiations Senator Mitchell’s proposals on decommissioning of weapons.

I believe that these agreements and commitments represent a balanced approach, to which I hope all the parties in Northern Ireland will feel able to subscribe. No one will find in there all that he may have asked for; equally, no one need fear that his basic interests and requirements are being overlooked.

The approach that the Taoiseach and I agreed marks out a clear route to all-party negotiations. We believe that this route is viable and direct. That is why we have set a firm date by which the negotiations will be launched. There is still the detail to be filled in, and some important issues to be settled. That is the purpose of the intensive consultations due to start next week and last until mid-March. But we now have the framework and a time scale to address and to decide these matters.

We are ready to meet all the parties in whatever format best suits them, but I repeat that there can be no dialogue between Ministers and Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is unequivocally restored. That, I must tell the House, is the position of the Irish Government as well.

The issues still to be settled include, first, the nature of the electoral system to be used in the elective process. There are strong views for and against different systems. Although the decision is for us, the British Government, we first intend to explore and test all the options in discussions with the parties before coming to our decision on what seems most broadly acceptable. The second issue is the nature and role of an elected body that will come out of the elections. Again, there are strongly held views, although many believe that such a body has a role to play as a forum for peace. The third issue is the format, structure and agenda of the negotiations themselves.

We have been discussing these issues intensively with the Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government for some time. I should have liked to be in a position to announce agreement on these issues and to be able to publish detailed proposals today. There are, however, still gaps to be filled in.

If I judge that it would be helpful, I may put forward to the parties, and perhaps publish, specific written proposals during the consultations. At the end of that period, the two Governments will review the outcome. Whether or not final agreement on all issues can be reached during that period, let me make it clear that, at the end of it, the Government will put forward to the House legislative proposals for elections in Northern Ireland. Decisions on the other outstanding arrangements will also be announced.

These decisions will be taken on the basis of a judgement of what is most likely to be broadly acceptable to the parties and to the people of Northern Ireland. We have decided to act in this way to make it clear that the process cannot be held up further if, in the end, there is still a complete lack of agreement.

We are taking these decisions upon ourselves–together, where appropriate, with the Irish Government–because we do not believe that the overwhelming desire of the people of Northern Ireland for lasting peace will brook further delay. We are ready to fulfil our responsibilities.

There is one other aspect of the communique that I should bring to the attention of the House–the suggestion that there could be referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. These could be held on the same day as the proposed election in Northern Ireland. The aim would be to give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to speak clearly about their own commitment to peaceful democratic methods and rejection of violence.

The Government will consider further with the parties whether such a referendum would be valuable or not. There is clearly room for debate about what the question or questions should be in such a referendum, but we will listen to the views of the parties, and make our own views clear at the end of the consultation period.

Meanwhile, let there be no doubt on three points. The first is that there is no place whatsoever for violence or the threat of violence in the peace process or in the negotiations themselves. Those who advocate violence, or who do not dissociate themselves clearly from its use or the threat of its use by others, cannot expect others to go on sitting at the negotiating table with them.

Senator Mitchell’s report sets out clear principles on democracy and non-violence, makes clear the priority to be attached to the decommissioning of illegal weapons, and makes proposals on how that can be tackled. These issues, however difficult, cannot be dodged. They will be on the table at the beginning of negotiations. If it becomes clear that any party is not committed to these principles and this approach, either at the beginning of negotiations or subsequently, in our view there will be no place for them at the negotiating table.

The second point is that there has never been any justification for terrorism or violence in Northern Ireland. These proposals and the firm commitment to all-party negotiations by a fixed date will remove any lingering thread of obfuscation and pretence about that.

The third point is that the battle against terrorism is being intensified. Co-operation between the British and the Irish Governments has never been better than it is at the moment. We will hunt down those responsible for the bombings and killings, and maintain security at whatever level is necessary to protect the citizens of this country as they go about their daily business. The people of this country and of the Irish Republic have made clearer than ever before their demand for an end to violence. That demand must now be met, and the people have the right to expect the violence to stop for good.

The search for peace has been much complicated by the resumption of terrorism on 9 February; but the Government said that we would not be deflected from our efforts, and we have not been. I am grateful for the support for our efforts that we have received from all parts of the House and across all parties. We and the Irish Government are united in our determination to stamp out terrorism and to bring a lasting peace. With the support of this House, I believe that we will succeed. But I must warn the House that the road ahead may yet be long and stony. The men of violence will not give up lightly. Among them are people who do not truly want peace as we in this House understand it.

As we go through the process leading to the negotiations, and as we take the difficult decisions that lie ahead, concerns will be raised from this or that side, and this or that interest. We will take account of all views, but we will not be deflected from our central objective, because the men, women and children of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demand no less of us. Their lives and their futures must be our first concern. I commend to the House this approach to negotiations and, ultimately, to a lasting and comprehensive peace.