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 Joint Press Conference with John Bruton – 10 June 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint press conference with the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, held at Stormont Castle on Monday 10th June 1996.


Let me firstly say how pleased I am to be joined at this press conference by the Taoiseach. It has been a fairly lengthy and a fairly difficult process to get where we are today to the beginning of talks. And yet this is in many senses just the end of the beginning. There is a great deal that lies ahead in the negotiations that will begin with the discussions today.

I don’t think either John or I have any illusions about the difficulty of the task that still lies ahead. It is going potentially to be long, to be difficult and to be demanding not just of the two governments but of all the participants as well.

Of course in our discussions today Sinn Fein are not present in those discussions. But no amount of grand standing by them can hide the fact that all-party talks are a reality and that they are going to continue. Sinn Fein can be a part of that process provided there is an unequivocal ceasefire. Without an unequivocal ceasefire, they cannot be part of that process and the process will continue without them. And that is a wholly united position between the two governments.

Despite their absence, this is an historic day. It is an opportunity to begin putting behind everyone some centuries of enmity and distrust.

In the last two or three decades, we have seen an enormous amount of wholly senseless violence, a violence that I believe is abhorrent to the ordinary law-abiding people of Northern Ireland, similarly abhorrent to other parts of the United Kingdom, and also to the citizens of the Irish Republic.

In Northern Ireland I have no doubt that people want a just and fair settlement, and I believe that also applies to others as well. And I don’t believe they are asking for something that is unreasonable – the opportunity to lead a normal life, the opportunity to have the same hopes and aspirations that other people automatically accept in their own way of life.

What we have seen since the ceasefire in 1994 is a glimpse of the opportunities that could exist for Northern Ireland given a permanent settlement of the dispute that has riven the area for so long. I believe it is wicked, quite literally wicked, that the shadow of violence has reappeared in Northern Ireland and I hope we are going to get that unequivocal ceasefire before too long.

Let me say a word about the talks process that has begun today. There is, I believe, a very heavy responsibility upon the participants in these particular talks, a heavy responsibility to participate fully in the process, a heavy responsibility to, wherever necessary, see if they can reach a reasonable compromise towards getting a settlement, and above all a responsibility to make sure that they will continue to talk one to the other so that they may finally find the settlement that people have been longing for for so long.

It would, of course, be very easy to prevent a settlement in these talks, nothing easier than declining to agree in discussions of this sort, and it will be very hard to forge an agreement in these talks. But no-one can deny which is the better outcome and I hope everyone taking part in them will try and forge that agreement.

There has been a great deal of discussion, and I think that is to the good. Before the meeting commenced this afternoon I had a meeting with David Trimble and John Taylor, with Ian Paisley and with Robert McCartney. And I don’t think they have any doubt about the possibilities ahead and I am sure that applies to all the other participants as well.

Let me say immediately how grateful I am to George Mitchell, John de Chatelain and Harri Holkery for the part that they have so generously offered to play in these negotiations, They have, individually and collectively, a great amount of talent and experience, a great amount of integrity, and I am confident of their impartiality. I believe they can work with objectivity and understanding and I look forward to them taking up their responsibilities. They are very substantial responsibilities. They don’t come to them entirely fresh, they come to them on the back of a practical set of principles to set the talks in a context of democracy and non-violence; they come on the back of proposals that deal with the thorny area of decommissioning, the proposals set out in the Mitchell Report; and they offer a way forward so that both the negotiations and the decommissioning can take place in parallel in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

As far as the British government is concerned, it will do all it can to further the negotiations. And ultimately it is for the participants themselves in these negotiations to reach and agree an outcome. Once that outcome has been agreed, it must first go to a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland and then, as appropriate, for legislation in the British Parliament.

To all the people in these negotiations this morning I think I would simply say this. The eyes of people not just in Northern Ireland, the Republic and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the eyes of people right the way round the world are on these negotiations at present. There is a great deal of hope residing in the belief that these negotiations offer the best opportunity for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland that we have seen for many decades. We cannot afford to fail, because the opportunities that have now been opened, having reached this far in the discussions, may not easily re-emerge were this opportunity not to be taken.

I hope and I believe that everybody engaged in the negotiations understands quite what rests upon a successful outcome of those negotiations. The hopes and expectations of very many people rest upon the goodwill and the negotiating skills, and courage where necessary to compromise, of the people involved in these particular talks. I wish them well. But there can be absolutely no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland want these talks to succeed, and I very much hope that they will.


The first thing I would like to say is that all those who are gathered for these talks have a tremendous opportunity to do enormous good, not only for the people of this island, but for the people of the neighbouring island, and for successive generations to come. This is truly an enormous opportunity, but it is an opportunity that can only be taken if there is a willingness to compromise by those who are gathered around this table, or who have a right to take their place at the table.

What is being sought is to overcome the legacy of history. And what is being sought to be resolved is a difference about allegiance, and there is no more difficult political difference to overcome than a difference of allegiance.

I think it is important also that people put their efforts in context by recalling all those who have died in the unresolved conflict over the last 27 or more years. I particularly feel this strongly as I came here to Belfast from the funeral of Garda Jerry McCabe, somebody who was shot down in the prime of his life, for no reason, for no good, who paid the supreme sacrifice. And there are so many other Jerry McCabes who have paid the supreme sacrifice. But there are those who have the opportunity now to make compromises, to have a sense of a very heavy responsibility to ensure that there will be no repetition of these types of loss of life of the kind that we have witnessed on this island and indeed in Britain for so long.

I particularly recalled in my address some of the politicians who gave their lives, but the politicians were perhaps the ones who obtained more notice. But there are people who didn’t lose their lives, who are suffering, in constant pain from injuries from which they will never recover. Their pain is just the daily bread of their life.

Those who gather together here have a responsibility. If they cannot alleviate the physical pain that those people suffer, at least to seek to alleviate the psychological pain by giving those who suffered so much a sense that the cause of that suffering is being removed. People should see their responsibilities in that broader human context. This is not simply a political exercise. This is an opportunity for all to put right a great wrong, and that wrong was violence and division.

I recall the fact that the Republican Movement in particular have campaigned throughout the length and breadth of these islands and across the world on the slogan “Peace Talks Now”. Now is today. Today is the day that talks are available. And only one condition needs to be fulfilled for everybody, including Sinn Fein, to be present at those talks, and that is a restoration of the IRA’s ceasefire.

Sinn Fein have already accepted the Mitchell principles. And it is worth recalling that the first of the Mitchell principles is total and absolute commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues. There is no consistency between accepting those principles and not having an immediate IRA ceasefire. Failure to restore a full and immediate IRA ceasefire is inconsistent with the very first of the Mitchell principles. I think it is also important to recall that another one of the Mitchell principles calls for an end to punishment beatings and killings for good.

I want to compliment all the parties who have come to these talks for the commitment they have shown. I want to say that the atmosphere, given the legacy of difference that has existed in the past, at least in the period that the Prime Minister and I were present, was good and constructive.

I want also, speaking as I do on behalf of an Irish government, to recognise the just pride in their own tradition and in their own British allegiance of a Unionist community represented by various parties at these talks. They are, as the poet John Hewitt said, “no stranger here”. And it is important to recognise that constitutional nationalists in all of the great debates that have gone on within nationalism over recent years has come, not just simply to recognise the Unionist community as having a distinctive cultural ethos, but has also come to recognise – and this was difficult, but it has happened – that their sense of being British is a crucial and central part of their identity as a Unionist community.

That is now recognised, it perhaps was not recognised in the same way 20 or 10 years ago, it is now recognised by Nationalists and that to my mind gives real reason for hope.

But to northern Nationalists I also say, on behalf of the Irish government, that we in the south have failed in the past, particularly in the early years when we were so painfully constructing our own state, we failed to give adequate, as distinct from self-serving rhetorical, adequate practical support to the Nationalist community in defending their rights and asserting their sense of Irish National allegiance.

I believe a great change is now taking place. That change represents an attempt, a sincere attempt on all sides, to come together. As I said in my few remarks, I quoted the words of King George V in 1920 where he appealed to all Irish people to pause and stretch out a hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget and to join in making the land, which they love, one in which there was a new era of peace.

And the important thing I think, to move on from those words, is the fact that both communities in this part of Ireland truly do love this land. They belong here. All that is needed is for each community to recognise that the other belongs here too.

I believe that that is happening. And where appeals of that nature may have fallen on less responsive ears in the past, I believe we may be seeing now a time when there will be a meaningful response and where we will create a political structure, in this island and in this part of this island, to which all can give equally.



QUESTION (Adam Boulton, Sky News):

Could I ask you both on behalf of your governments at the beginning of the negotiations between the parties here in the north, what claim both your governments make on these six counties now and how far you are prepared to go during the course of negotiations? What claim does the Irish Government make on the six counties?


Our aim is to provide an opportunity for people to find a way of walking together. I believe that claims of the kind that you refer to which are phrased I think in territorial terms, don’t represent the reality of the modern world where people can move from one territory to another with such great ease.

What is crucial now is the sense of allegiance that each individual feels not to the land that they live on or what flag flies on that land or who has the deeds of the land. What is important is the sense of allegiance that each individual wherever they live feels themselves and what we are seeking to do in these negotiations and certainly I see the framework document that the Prime Minister and I agreed as being essentially an agreement whereby we are putting the allegiance of people first and putting matters of claims of the kind that you raised into their proper, comparatively less important role.


And the allegiances will be determined and endorsed in a referendum as I said earlier.


Is there a chance that Mr Mitchell will now not chair the talks as you originally planned?


I very much hope not and I would expect not. George Mitchell is a very able and talented man, he spent a great deal of time and trouble over the Mitchell Report and the Mitchell principles are the basis that formed the entry point into these particular discussions. Quite apart from George Mitchell’s natural talents and ability to chair the plenary, I believe that much otherwise fruitless discussions about what the Mitchell Report might have meant can be readily dispensed if you have the author of the Mitchell Report chairing the plenary when he can make it perfectly plan what he meant and he was perfectly plain in his report about the need for decommissioning to go alongside political negotiations during the talks.

I think it is perfectly proper for the participants to discuss this, they are going to have to sit under the chairmanship at the end of all the discussions and I think it is perfectly proper for them to discuss it, but I very much hope and believe that George Mitchell will be acceptable and will carry out his responsibilities.

QUESTION (Irish Times):

Prime Minister, the Taoiseach mentioned the framework document twice in his speech earlier and he has mentioned it just now, but I notice it is not mentioned in your speech. Has there been a cooling of enthusiasm on the British Government’s part in relation to the framework document, have you retreated from it or gone cool on it?


One of the interesting aspects of these negotiations all the way through is that if John and say the same thing everyone says: “It is extremely boring! They agree! They are concerted!”, but we both agreed the Downing Street Declaration, we both agreed the framework document as a possible outcome. We were asked actually to consider that by the participants and to do that; we did that and those agreements were made and were reached.

We have now reached the circumstances where the negotiators themselves will determine what is satisfactory. We can’t impose it upon them, we are not in the business of imposing things upon people. That, firstly, is not the way we wish to proceed, and secondly, it would not be effective. That is the background against which they now carry out their negotiations and you should read nothing sinister into any textual differences between the Taoiseach and I on that or indeed on other matters; I dare say there were one or two things in my speech that John didn’t mention, I will look carefully through and see what they are but in essence it has to be determined by the negotiators, that is the basis upon which these talks take place.


Prime Minister, did you ever pinch yourself in the past two years or ask yourself whether you had been too cautious about the peace process because the republicans said today they don’t trust you. Why should they trust you against that background?


I suppose I might have pinched myself two ways: I might have pinched myself if the republicans said I was too cautious and I might have pinched myself if some of the unionists said I was quite the reverse. The reality is that this is only going to succeed if we bring all the parties together to talk and an awful lot of people I seem to recall, not just over the past two years but over the last five years or so, have predicted with absolute certainty that we would never get to this day, exactly the same people who said you will never get agreement on the Downing Street Declaration; exactly the same people who said you would never get agreement on frameworks; exactly the same people who said you would never find a way in which you can hold the elections and everybody will take part, someone will walk out; exactly the same people who said you won’t get agreement on the forum and exactly the same people who said you would actually not get everybody sitting around the table. If I pinched myself every time somebody suggested that wouldn’t be achieved, I would quite literally be black and blue from head to tail and I promise you I am not.


Prime Minister, on what basis you have this confidence, unlike many people in Northern Ireland who believe this process is doomed, and you believe it can work?


I think it is the same point I have just been making. People have been saying this process is doomed from the very first day but there is, if I may put it this way, a secret weapon in making sure that this talks process succeeds and the secret weapon is the determination of the people of Northern Ireland who have had not just the last 25 years, historically much longer but certainly the last 25 years in which their living standards, their well-being, their security, their safety, their whole way of life has been totally diminished by the violence that we have just seen and my judgement of the people out there – I don’t just mean the negotiators, I mean the people they represent, all the people of Northern Ireland – is that they are sick and tired of this issue and they want their politicians and their governments to come together and actually see if they can find a solution. I think that is a powerful imperative and it is upon that basis that I think there is an obligation upon the elected politicians in Northern Ireland to do everything they can to try and reach a settlement. They won’t have to answer to me if they don’t or to the Taoiseach if they don’t, they will have to answer to the people of Northern Ireland.

QUESTION (Michael Brunson, ITV):

Prime Minister, did you get any assurances from either Mr Trimble or Mr Paisley about the position of Senator Mitchell, particularly in view of the fact that Mr Paisley was saying categorically this morning that if Senator Mitchell was there he would walk out?


I didn’t hear what Ian Paisley may have said to you this morning and I am not going to comment on reported comments. I discussed the matter with them and I think at the end of the day that George Mitchell will prove acceptable and I think that is most certainly going to happen, it is being discussed now and I am confident of the outcome.

QUESTION (Michael Brunson, ITV):

Did he give you a promise to that effect though?


No, I had a private discussion with them Michael; I don’t talk about private discussions.

QUESTION (Financial Times):

Prime Minister, have any events in recent days or weeks changed your conviction that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness do not intend to get the ceasefire upon which their participation depends?

To the Taoiseach, the same question but is it still your conviction that they cannot and that they are somehow beholden to other forces within the IRA?


We can’t know entirely what is happening within their minds or within the IRA. What we can know and what we have both stated quite clearly is that providing there is an unequivocal IRA ceasefire, then the route is open for Sinn Fein to take part in this talks process. Without that, the route is closed for Sinn Fein.

We have done what we can in order to facilitate an all-party talks process that included Sinn Fein. We have carried out our obligations, it is now a matter for the IRA.


There are two other points I would add to what the Prime Minister has said.

First of all, I think it is very important to recognise that many people who voted for Sinn Fein did so in order to encourage Sinn Fein to pursue a peace strategy and indeed in their campaign they referred to peace a lot and obviously the opportunity that they have to pursue a peace strategy is made available to them in these talks starting today and the only obligation that is required is that the IRA would reinstate the ceasefire and I believe that that in fact creates a great pressure for a restoration of the ceasefire.

I would also like to make the point that John Hume and the SDLP over many years when many others didn’t, shall we say, have confidence in the commitment of Sinn Fein and the Republican Movement ultimately to a peaceful solution, John Hume kept faith with them. It is very clear that John Hume and the SDLP also want them to come into these talks and want the IRA to have a ceasefire now so that that can happen. I think all of those forces within their own community and in light of their own mandate are working towards the restoration of the ceasefire and I believe that weight will be given to those.

It is furthermore very important to make the point that the two governments have sought to give answers to every query – to every issue that was raised there have been answers provided – and the condition has been created now for truly inclusive and meaningful negotiations which you will recollect is what they were looking for all along. That is now there, those negotiations start today and all that needs to be done for Sinn Fein to take their full part on the strength of their full mandate is for the first of the Mitchell principles to be accepted by the entire Republican Movement.

QUESTION (Daily Mail):

Prime Minister, if there is an IRA ceasefire will you be willing to meet Gerry Adams and shake his hand?


Let us get the IRA ceasefire first shall we and then we will deal with other matters of that sort.


Do you think it is possible to reach a lasting settlement which will take in this part of Ireland without Sinn Fein or do you think the talks are, in the words of an Irish government official, not worth a penny candle without them?


I think that it is very important that Sinn Fein should be in the talks but I will put it this way: nobody has a veto. I think we have been hearing indeed from the Republican Movement that no one party should have a veto; they were of course thinking of somebody else when they were saying that but equally, they don’t have a veto either and it is important to make the point that nobody, whether they be nationalists or unionists, whether they be a big party or a small party, has a veto and in that sense of course the talks that are starting today, which represent 85 percent of the people plus the two governments, can do a great deal of business but for the sake of completeness and as part of the reflection of the peace process that has been running for a number of years now which was one of bringing everybody in from both extremes as well as the middle, to give fulfilment to that process it is important that Sinn Fein are there and it is important that they be allowed to be there by the IRA.




Let us see. Hopefully, that question will not have to be answered. We can’t answer that with a double hypothesis involved in the question and it is not really possible to answer it without engaging in the gift of prophecy and it is difficult enough to deal with the present without having to cast oneself and one’s skills that far forward.

QUESTION (BBC Newsnight):

If and when there is a ceasefire and Sinn Fein come to the talks, the DUP has said quite clearly that they will leave. Is it possible to have a settlement in Northern Ireland without the DUP on board?


I think we will have to see what happens when we get a ceasefire and what the circumstances of the ceasefire are. I think often many people and many parties have a particular position but these are moving negotiations, they are not static. I can recall other statements made by one party or another relating to today – that has changed as they all sit down together today so I am not going to be in the business of saying things that are going to make it more difficult for everybody to take part in inclusive talks later. I think we can get inclusive discussions and that is what we will be working for.


I think it is also worth making the point that all the parties represent people and that the overwhelming majority of the people who support all the parties want a settlement, they may not want exactly the same settlement but they all want a settlement and I don’t think that the electorate that supported any of the parties would forgive any one of them if they were the ones that prevented the possibility of a settlement being achieved.

It is important to make the point that there is a responsibility on everybody’s shoulders here, it is not just a responsibility for the governments or for the bigger parties, everybody has a responsibility.

QUESTION (New York Times):

Mr Adams repeated today what he has been saying for at least a week now, that regardless of what happens today or this week, Sinn Fein will be part of an all-inclusive settlement. Do both of you agree with him that this will come to pass?


We can certainly be part of an all-inclusive settlement, we have gone to a great deal of trouble to give him the opportunity to become part of an all-inclusive settlement. We would like Sinn Fein in the talks, there ought to be no doubt about that, we have been saying that consistently over the past couple of years.

The option for that to happen is with Mr Adams and with the IRA. If what he is hinting at is that there is going to be a ceasefire then I am very pleased to hear that.