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 Doorstep Interview with John Bruton – 9 December 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s joint doorstep interview with John Bruton, held on Monday 9th December 1996.


Can I firstly apologise for the fact that we are running so late, but I think you know there were some fog problems this morning and the Taoiseach arrived at Downing Street a little later than previously advertised, we had a very lengthy agenda and I am afraid that accounts for our late arrival out here in Downing Street. My apologies for that.

I welcome the Taoiseach here really in two capacities: first as the current President of the European Union; and secondly of course as the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland. We divided our discussions today into both those quite separate compartments.

We began with a very comprehensive examination of the European Union issues that lie in front of us, most obviously of course the Intergovernmental Conference and the summit that we have in Dublin on Friday and on Saturday.

I would like at the outset to congratulate the Irish Presidency not only on the work they have done during their Presidency thus far, but on the excellent Presidency text that they have produced about the Intergovernmental Conference, which is not prejudicial to the subsequent decisions to be taken, but which seta out with great clarity and fairness the differing positions of all the countries on the various European issues. It cannot have been easy to get such an excellent text but it is one I think that will be very useful in the months that lie immediately ahead.

The text of course sets out the basis for negotiation during the period between the Dublin Summit and the Amsterdam summit, and it does not prejudice what the outcome of any of those discussions may be. But I think there is little doubt that at the Dublin Summit this weekend, as we discuss many of the issues in the Intergovernmental Conference, that the different positions of member states on a range of issues will be set out, and certainly we anticipate discussing Economic and Monetary Union, common foreign and security policy, employment, justice and home affairs, and also some anti-drugs initiatives that the United Kingdom have been working on with France and with other countries as well, and I look forward to discussing all those issues, and others as well, I strongly suspect, at Dublin on Friday and Saturday.

We also spent some time discussing the current position in Northern Ireland, about which the two governments have worked together for so long and so well with the same objective in mind. We are united in wishing to see a credible ceasefire, and we are united also, provided we can get a credible and verifiable ceasefire, in peeing Sinn Fein join the talks and making them inclusive in due course. And of course they would have to join the talks in accordance with the ground rules that were established some many months ago.

We both wish those talks to succeed, but we recognise that if they are to succeed they must be carried out on a basis that will require all the participants to remain at the table so that we can credibly examine the issues that still lie before us in Northern Ireland.

I don’t wish this afternoon to speculate about whether a particular date is possible for Sinn Fein to join the talks. That, as I have indicated on a number of occasions recently, depends on what is said and done and whether an unequivocal ceasefire is declared and is then held after having been declared. Clearly the developments on the ground need to be consistent with the Mitchell principles of peace and democracy. And I certainly share with the Taoiseach a wish that we will be able to get in due course to inclusive talks involving all the parties as soon as all the parties have established their commitment to a democratic process and to peaceful means.

I share his judgment too that there should be no undue and unnecessary delay in coming to a judgment upon matter. But the onus, to enable us to reach that judgment, depends upon the actions of Sinn Fein/IRA firstly to restore their ceasefire credibly, to do so as soon as possible and then to have a judgment, made upon whether it is a genuine and lasting ceasefire and upon the actions on the ground that we need to see in order to establish the ground rules procedure.

Those are the matters that we need to look at, but whether they join the talks or not, we expect the talks to continue in any event. They would be better if inclusive, but whether inclusive or not depends upon the actions of Sinn Fein/IRA and a proper judgment being made upon whether those actions are sincere and lasting or not.

So these are the issues we have been discussing, we have discussed also some, if I may use the jargon, east-west issues, London/Dublin issues, where there is a range of initiatives that I don’t think I need detain you with at the moment, but add up to an ever improving relationship between London and Dublin. I very much welcome that. I think the developments between the two countries are much better when we work together, and we have done so very successfully in recent years and I look forward to that continuing.

I would like now to invite the Taoiseach to say whatever he wishes on European matters, and Northern Ireland matters as well no doubt, as well as East-West, and then we will endeavour to take any questions you may have.


First of all, this is the 13th of a series of 14 meetings that I am having with other Heads of EU Governments. I am travelling to Paris tomorrow to complete the series of bilaterals in each of the capitals of the European Union in preparation for the Dublin Summit next week. And I have outlined to the Prime Minister basically what we would like to achieve at the Dublin Summit. First of all we want to move forward on the issues that remain to be resolved in regard to the creation of an Economic and Monetary Union in Europe based on a single currency. The issues that have been worked upon and are ready for decision at Dublin include the actual date, the confirmation of the date for the commencement of the single currency, which is 1 January 1999; the legal arrangements, which are exceptionally complex when one is moving from one currency regime to another, which have also been finalised; the arrangements for the relationship between those Union countries that will be in the single currency from day one, and those who will not be in it from day one, that again required a lot of complex work, which has been completed; and finally the budgetary discipline that will apply to the countries that are already in the European currency from day one.

There are some difficulties that remain to be resolved as far as that is concerned, but tremendous progress is being made and I hope that the remaining arguments will be settled at the Economic and Finance Ministers meeting, which is taking place later this week.

We will also be reaching conclusions in accordance with the Essen Process, and which the Prime Minister was involved in initiating, in regard to employment. We will be re-dedicating ourselves to work as members of the European Union to reduce unemployment as it exists in the Union at the present time. It is worth noting that the total level of unemployment in the European Union at the present time is equivalent to the population of the three smallest member states combined. So clearly we have a requirement to work hard on that question.

We will also be taking note of the treaty, to which the Prime Minister has referred, which we have prepared a draft of, which we hope will be completed at Amsterdam, a new treaty for the European Union.

And finally, we will be making decisions we hope on crime and drug issues. In particular we hope to adopt a major statement on organised crime, which is an increasing problem across national boundaries within the European Union, and also on the supply of and the demand for drugs within the European Union, which is a trans-national problem, it is not a problem confined to one member state.

We hope that across all of those issues that I have mentioned, plus a number of foreign policy questions, including the Middle East Peace Process, our relations with central and eastern Europe, we will be able to reach very substantial conclusions which will mark a major advance in our work.

As the Prime Minister has said, we availed of this opportunity which arose primarily from an EU-related visit, to review our joint work in regard to Northern Ireland. We have two objectives in common: firstly, both governments are seeking a truly inclusive process of negotiation involving all of the parties, of the electorate represented; secondly, we are both working for an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire at the earliest possible moment. Both of these conditions are necessary for any durable and freely negotiated agreement to be reached which will be fair and acceptable to all. Violence is inimical to the reaching of a freely agreed solution.

Obviously the problems that we are dealing with are complex and long-standing. But the two governments are working together to solve those problems on the basis of the firm foundation of the communique that the Prime Minister and I agreed here on 28 February of this year, and also the ground rules that we agreed between our two governments for the all-party talks which relate in particular as far as an IRA ceasefire is concerned, to paragraphs 8 and 9, which determine eligibility as far as Sinn Fein is concerned for participation in the talks.

Since the original IRA ceasefire, it is worth noting that major steps forward have been made. We have agreed a joint framework document between the two governments which set out a long term outline of how we see the solution to the problem being arrived at, an agreed position between the two governments, something never achieved before historically. Since the ceasefire also there has been amelioration in the conditions of prisoners, and also the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin reached a joint report involving the largest range of parties ever to sit around the same table in Ireland since 1917.

Since the ceasefire broke down, we have continued our work. We have fixed a date for all-party talks, that date – the 10th of June – and the talks have started. We agreed detailed ground rules for those talks and procedures for those talks, and we are now working together to achieve an IRA ceasefire so that all the parties, including Sinn Fein, can participate in the talks.

My government’s position is that if the IRA calls an unequivocal ceasefire, in words that are believable and provided there is nothing done that is inconsistent with this ceasefire, or with the Mitchell Principles, then Sinn Fein should be admitted to participation in the talks in accordance with the ground rules that we have agreed. The first step, however, is a credible ceasefire. The onus is on the Republican Movement to restore the ceasefire credibly at the earliest moment. I want to see Sinn Fein’s participation in the talks at the earliest moment too on that basis.

In practical terms, given the imminence of the Christmas recess, would hope that this would be possible early in the New Year. But there could also be room for reciprocal confidence-building measures in the meantime. The sooner we have a ceasefire, the sooner we can work in that direction.

A way forward is now in place. All who are willing to negotiate with patience and determination are welcome to take part. For the sake of the people of Ireland, and of all in these islands, I call on the Republican Movement to give us an IRA ceasefire so that all can negotiate their future together free of threat.


Could I ask you if you agree with what Mr Bruton has just said, that this business of bringing Sinn Fein in and starting the substantive phase of the all-party talks could happen by the New Year?


I have never been prepared to put a date on to it because I don’t think the question is the passage of a particular timespan. The question at issue is the actions of Sinn Fein/IRA. It is not just a question of saying we are going to have a ceasefire, we need to know on this occasion that it is a genuine ceasefire, so we need to examine that, we need to see not only what they say about the ceasefire, but what they subsequently do. And that is why I have spelt out on a number of occasions the particular things that we will be looking at. So we are not looking at a particular time frame, either short or long, I am not seeking undue delay, this is not a delaying process, but I need to be certain that if they have a ceasefire it is a genuine ceasefire and for that reason we have set out the sort of things that we will look at to make a judgment about whether it is a genuine ceasefire. And once that is the case of course we are better off with an inclusive process. But I can’t put a date to it. Sinn Fein/IRA may be able to put a date to it, but that is for them, not for me.


But you are not ruling out the prospect of this being settled by the New Year or by January?


I am not ruling anything out or ruling anything in. I am not going to be drawn on dates because I have said until I am blue in the face that I don’t think dates are the point, the point is actions, the point is people need to be convinced, in order to sit down and talk with Sinn Fein, that this time it is not a fake. Another fake is of no use, except in the very short-term. What we want is a genuine ceasefire, so we need to see whether the actions that follow the words are satisfactory, and I can’t and won’t put a timescale to that because it is the actions that are relevant, and I have spelt that out on a number of occasions over recent days.


Isn’t it a fact that based on what you have said, and what the Taoiseach has said, that there still appears to be a gulf between your two positions? The Taoiseach seems to be saying, ceasefire, adherence to the Mitchell Principles, straight into talks against the backdrop of a credible ceasefire. You don’t seem to be saying that, am I interpreting you correctly?


Could I just say that what I have said consistently on this matter is that for a political party to take part in the all-party talks, there must be compliance with the ground rules for the talks. They are set out in paragraph 8 and 9 in particular, and paragraphs 8 and 9 require a ceasefire, but also paragraph 8 in particular requires demonstration that the ceasefire is credible.


And I couldn’t have put it better myself, thank you.


[Indistinct] on how you established paragraph 8?


We set out the ground rules, as the Taoiseach said, some time ago and I put some flesh upon how we will interpret the ground rules. And so that is why I say to you, the point isn’t just setting an arbitrary date, that is not really the point. I understand the fears that some people have that because there is not an arbitrary date that that necessarily implies a very long delay. Well that would be a wrong reading of the situation. We set out the ground rules some time ago, we need to make sure the ground rules are kept. I have set out some of the things that we are going to look at to make sure the ground rules are kept. Once we have examined those, if there is a ceasefire, we will look at the wards that are issued with the ceasefire, but beyond that we will look at the sort of things necessary to see if the ground rules themselves are met, and that is what we propose to do, that is why you can’t put a particular timescale to it.


Taoiseach, on Europe, on the basis of your talks do you think it is going to be possible to make any meaningful progress on the sensitive areas or whether it is going to be again a question of Britain against the rest?


It certainly won’t be a question of Britain against the rest. The issues which I have outlined are ones on which I believe we will make substantial progress in Dublin, I believe we will make substantial progress on crime and drugs, because here there is a complete identity of views around Europe that this must be a very high priority for all political leaders and governments. I believe also we will make progress on employment based on each government taking its own responsibilities, but also our working together to free up the internal market, and indeed to free up labour markets so that maximum job opportunities are created within Europe and between European countries.

As far as Economic and Monetary Union is concerned, it is obviously the case that Britain has an opt-out of their own which was negotiated and agreed to by all other member states, but as far as the other states are concerned we are on track to move forward on time to introduce the single currency on the date specified, and I believe you will see at the Dublin Summit evidence of a huge amount of detailed painstaking and effective work that has been done to lay the technical basis for the early introduction of the single currency.


In the current circumstances the conditions that now exist for Sinn Fein to get into talks, the Republic Spokesmen and the IRA have repeatedly made clear on the current circumstances they simply are not interested. Is there anything that either you or the Taoiseach can say to Sinn Fein to persuade them to talk to the IRA to persuade the IRA to have another ceasefire, because on the current circumstances they don’t want to know.


That is a matter for Sinn Fein/IRA, they must make their own judgments. If they wish to remain pariahs then I suppose they will remain pariahs, but I don’t believe that they can expect suddenly to return to the talks after having been in a process, after having effectively broken their word during that process. We were told repeatedly during the last ceasefire that the ceasefire was for good, the bomb and the gun has gone forever we were told time after time. We now know self-evidently that that was not true. Not only have we discovered it wasn’t true, we know that it wasn’t true at the time they said it, because they were planning to return to violence at the same time that they said it. So if they are frustrated about the need to get back into talks, the frustration arises out of their own actions, not out of anything anyone else has done.


That question was addressed to both of us and I would like to answer it too. I would like to say to the Republican movement, first of all you have a talks process now in existence, which you can join. You know the terms upon which you can join it, they are set out in the ground rules for the talks.

When you had the previous ceasefire there was no talks process in existence; there is one now which you can join. Furthermore, we have independent chairmen ready and willing to include you in the talks and take the necessary steps to ensure that your position is adequately safeguarded, as will be the position of all other parties. There are detailed procedures agreed insofar as the talks are concerned to ensure that no minority is in any sense badly treated. None of these conditions existed when the first ceasefire was called. These conditions exist now, so why not have a ceasefire now.

I would say in particular to the Republican Movement, those who are in Sinn Fein are people of ability. They should have nothing to fear from sitting down at the table to discuss their future – and it is a joint future – with all their neighbours in Northern Ireland. They don’t need recourse to violence to argue their case, they have the ability of their minds and the strength of their convictions to argue their case. They have nothing to fear from a ceasefire, nothing to fear from taking part in the talks. The only barrier that is preventing them from taking part in the talks is the absence of a ceasefire and the absence so far of compliance with the ground rules for the talks.


Those talks have been going now for 6 months, they appear to be heading nowhere, surely those talks are pointless without Sinn Fein?


First of all I think it is fair to say that the problems which those talks are addressing have existed on the island of Ireland for 400 years, they have caused 25 years of violence. I don’t understand these expressions of impatience at the fact that after just 6 months of talks we haven’t found a solution yet. Anybody who looks at this problem against the sweep of history will have to see that what we have now is something we have not had for 75 years, which is all the people with a table that they can sit around, with governments that are willing to work with them to find a solution, with governments that respect both minority and majority in that situation. Let us not ask whether the glass is three-quarters full or not, let us look at the fact that we have got a process now which enables the participants together to fill the glass to the brim if that is what they want to do.


And let me add just a word to that. We heard similar expressions of pessimism about what would happen repeatedly before the first cease-fire and before the progress we made on a whole range of things – the Downing Street declaration could never be reached, the frameworks could never be reached, the agreements I have reached with John Bruton could never be done – we have heard all this time, and time, and time again. It is certainly true that this is a frustrating process, often two steps forward and one step back. It was always likely that it was going to be that way, and it certainly has been that way. But I think what the Taoiseach and I share is a conviction in the power of reason, reason suggests that the only way this is ever going to be resolved is by people coming together and reaching a conclusion in democratic talks.

Anyone who believes this is going to be resolved in anyone’s favour out of the barrel of a gun I think mis-judges the situation, deceives themselves and deceives other people. Reason must prevail. It must be very frustrating, I know, for many people who wish to see faster progress that reason often seems to take so long to be reached, but I think that is the only way of making progress, that is what the two governments are seeking to


You set out in your interview yesterday a number of areas of pressure for greater integration in Europe which you were prepared to resist, for example border controls, asylum and immigration, qualified majority voting. Do you expect to find yourself isolated in Dublin on those issues and are you prepared to face such isolation, and do you agree with the Taoiseach that unemployment is a problem for the European Union to solve?


Let me take the first point. I don’t expect to be isolated on all those issues, certainly on some of them we will have allies, how vocal they will be only time alone will tell, but we are certainly not isolated on all those issues. But on some of the issues where we are isolated I have to say I am undeterred by that.

I think the needs and requirements of what is right for the United Kingdom must govern what I do in the Intergovernmental Conference, in the discussions at Dublin and beyond, and it most assuredly will do so. When the Taoiseach spoke a moment ago about employment, he spoke also of the Essen Process. The Essen Process of course is explicit to the extent that this is a matter for the member states and sets out quite particularly a range of supply side measures, a number of which we have adopted in the United Kingdom. So certainly across Europe there is a communal interest in employment. What is not the case is that getting unemployment down further could best be done at the centre by Community policies, I don’t believe that and I don’t think most dispassionate observers could believe that. That we should discuss how unemployment generally could come down, of course that is fine, but the decisions and the judgments as to how to get it down must be decisions and judgments made individually within each member state, as foreshadowed in the Essen Agreements.


Taoiseach, you have called on the Republican Movement to ensure a ceasefire, but given that there is a difference between yourself and the British Government over a possible time or date for the verification process to be completed, could you say with conviction to the Republican Movement that if they called a ceasefire that Sinn Fein would speedily get into substantive negotiations?


First of all, let me say that there are no time limits on the table. The conditions, and the only conditions, that have to be fulfilled for Sinn Fein to take part in the talks are set out in the ground rules paper. Obviously that calls upon the IRA to take certain very clear decisions. They know, and have known since April, what are the conditions they must fulfil because they are set out in a published document, namely the ground rules paper. I believe that if a credible ceasefire is called, a ceasefire which sets out in the terms in which it is called, to convince everybody in Northern Ireland, including those who have been at the receiving end of IRA violence over 25 years, to convince them that this time there is no going back to violence.

And if the IRA makes the necessary effort, in the way in which they frame their ceasefire declaration, to convince all concerned that this time there is no turning back to violence, yes I believe Sinn Fein will be quickly admitted to talks.