The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at the Children for Peace Lecture – 4 April 2003

The text of John Major’s speech at the Children for Peace Lecture, held in Warrington on Friday 4th April 2003.


There are some events seared into the mind and never forgotten. The Warrington bomb is one. I remember the day vividly: Saturday, March 20th, 1993, a warm, sunny afternoon and I was walking in the garden of my home in Huntingdon. It was a rare moment of peace of mind at a turbulent time. The sound of a ringing telephone interrupted that Spring day and in quiet despair I listened as Number 10 told me of the bomb and the likelihood of there being fatalities.

And so it proved. Two little boys, wholly innocent of any political thought or action, had their young lives cut short by that bomb. 56 others – totally unconnected with Northern Ireland disputes, suffered injuries – many serious.

The true horror of that Warrington day struck deep into the British psyche. The images of Tim and Johnathan are as vivid today as they were during that dreadful weekend.

That bomb – with its pitiless destruction – was to have a lasting impact on the Peace Process.

The process had begun over two years earlier. In 1992, Albert Reynolds had become Taoiseach, Prime Minister of Ireland. He and I knew one another from our days as Finance Ministers. We were at ease with each other from the start – and shared the same view about the Irish troubles: we both believed they could be brought to an end. An examination of history did not support our optimism. Initiative after initiative had failed: the Willie Whitelaw talks in 1972; the Sunningdale Agreement made by Ted Heath in 1973; Jim Prior’s Assembly proposals in 1982 and Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

Albert and I knew that if progress were to be made it would require a joint approach by the British and Irish Governments: a solo effort would not be enough. Before 1990, contact between the two Governments had been minimal despite our mutual membership of the EU. Charlie Haughey, the then Taoiseach, and I had agreed we should meet at least twice a year bilaterally and be in regular contact between such meetings. Albert Reynolds was keen to do the same. Over the years our senior officials were to get to know one another well, too.

From the moment I arrived at Number 10, Northern Ireland was a priority issue for me. I can’t rationally explain why: I can only say the issue kept bubbling to the front of my mind. And during the 6½ years I spent as Prime Minister, it never fell from the top of my agenda. I visited Northern Ireland more often than any of my predecessors and more frequently than any other part of the UK. I held meetings beyond number with leaders of the main Northern Ireland Parties at Westminster and special interest groups at Westminster and in Belfast. Some were interminable. Some were friendly. Some were raucous. Some were hopeful. Some ended in people walking out. All were necessary. It was a panorama of protest and progress.

Invariably, I was struck by one common perception. It was the distinction between the warmth and charm of most of the politicians and community leaders I met, and the depth and viciousness of the rivalries that divided them. In Northern Ireland itself that perception was magnified. Yet, from Belfast to Derry, from Ian Paisley’s Antrim to Jim Molyneaux’s Lagan Valley to the SDLP constituencies of John Hume and his colleagues, there came a message demanding peace and a readiness to support action to achieve it. Only the evil of bigotry and deep-rooted hatred slowed down the process.

From the beginning, Albert Reynolds and I had similar objectives, although our preferred means of achieving them were often far apart. We had many agreements and some rows. Both of us sometimes operated on a short fuse lit by frustration at the obstacles to progress. Sometimes the climate was frosty and mutual frustration evident. But our disagreements were political never personal and Albert became – and remains – a friend I cherish. As did his successor, John Bruton, with whom I enjoyed a more equable but equally fruitful working relationship.

At the time of the Warrington bomb, I was optimistic about movement from the IRA. It was – ironically – the very day a message from me had been delivered to Martin McGuinness. The bomb was a bleak response and suggested my optimism was misplaced. I considered whether we should break off negotiations but decided against it for many reasons – some hard headed and practical, others more personal and emotional.

If we abandoned our attempt at peace, I wondered, what legacy would that be for Tim and Johnathan? Would it not be a cop-out, a striking of an attitude, because to continue would be a political risk. If we did so, how many other innocents would have their lives cut short? How many other families would be left to grieve?

Would breaking off negotiations simply lead to entrenched attitudes and encourage more violence?

More positively, if we were to continue with our efforts, would not the instinctive reaction of horror following Warrington help box-in and isolate the men of violence? I thought so.

So did Albert Reynolds and he, too, was keen to continue. We were both aware of the warped mentality of the hard men of the IRA: if they negotiated at all they guarded their backs by showing their volunteers they did so from “a position of strength”. In their coded language, this meant after an atrocity. In essence they were saying to their members “How can you think we’re going soft – we’ve just blown someone up.” The commonly held view after Warrington: that negotiations were failing and would not proceed, was a misjudgement. It was more likely that negotiations would make progress now that the IRA had shown their volunteers in the most violent way possible that they were not weakening. They hammered home their point with a further bomb at Bishopsgate a few weeks later which cost yet another life and much destruction of property.

Perverse – of course. Cynical – certainly. Wicked – beyond doubt. But what motivated both Albert Reynolds and me was the hope that we might prevent more bombs and return normality to Northern Ireland and the mainland. The IRA had tried violence for 30 years. It had failed. It would always fail. They now knew bombs would never drive the British from Northern Ireland. They had no realistic choice other than to seek a political settlement.

In the early nineties, the Peace Process was controversial. Many supported it. Many others – in and out of the British Cabinet – did not: they preferred the posture of “no talks until the IRA lay down their arms” which on the face of it seemed to be a strong and decisive position but in practice was not. Such a policy could only lead to a stand-off, with no progress at all, continuing violence and everlasting anti-British propaganda. I thought such a laissez-faire policy was short-sighted and wrong. In fact, it was no policy at all. I was fortunate that both my Northern Ireland Secretaries of State, Peter Brooke and Paddy Mayhew, shared my view – and continued to do so even after the IRA unleashed a mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991 in an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister and as many of the Cabinet as possible. The mortar landed in the Garden of Number 10. A few feet closer and there would most certainly have been fatalities.

The Labour and Lib-Dem Opposition front benches were supportive of a peace process and, with rare forays into criticism, remained so throughout my term of office. In turn, I have supported the present Government’s efforts and have kept my counsel even when I believed mistakes had been made, as – no doubt – they did for me: maintaining the momentum for peace was – and is – the only objective.

The causes of the Northern Ireland troubles lie deep in history and have been exacerbated by generations of distrust, recrimination, hatred and out-of-date tribal attitudes. Although the roots may be ancient, the perceived inequity of the old Stormont Parliament, and the divisive gulf between Unionist and Republican aspirations has kept mutual loathing burning brightly. Until the Northern Ireland Assembly was formed, politicians were literally irresponsible – they had no responsibility in government for decision-making at all – nothing to force them to reach a pragmatic rapprochement. That need was vital which is why elections and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was so important and its suspension last Autumn such a setback.

Despite ongoing difficulties, I have always been an optimist about Northern Ireland. There will be a settlement because there must be. If one looks back through the avenue of the past three decades or so there are many reasons to justify that optimism. The clamour for normality from the majority of people in Northern Ireland has grown ever louder.

The Women’s Peace Movement was conceived and led bravely, and showed both Loyalist and Republican hard men that the majority of people in their communities opposed violence and wanted a better, more peaceful future. Other grass roots organisations like FAIT – Families Against Intimidation and Terror – showed their distaste at the brutal behaviour of the paramilitaries. They were brave campaigners in a good cause. The public anger at atrocities – Warrenpoint, Greysteel, Warrington, so many of them – also drove that point home. The Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Document which laid the basis for the important Belfast Agreement, the ceasefires, the work of the Mitchell Commission, all were a response to the demand for normality.

Of course, “the troubles” are not just political and nor is the solution to them. There are those in the IRA and the Protestant Groups for whom the nature of the political settlement is all important: but there are many others in these movements for whom criminality sheltering behind a political cause is quite simply a way of life. Such men, and women, have no wish for a settlement, no wish for peace, will do everything in their power to frustrate it and, if it were achieved, might peel off to join ever-more extreme splinter groups. They will be isolated by a political settlement. But until it comes they will oppose it. These people – forever arguing, disputing, deceiving and distrusting – are one of the fundamental reasons why political agreements have been so hard to achieve. But when that political agreement is finally reached – and it will be – these remnants of humanity will be seen for the violent criminals they are and be isolated, caught and punished.

To many it is baffling that – so long after the Peace Process began – there is still no settlement. I am not in the least surprised. First, because as I have just said, some people are working from within against a solution; and second, because that elusive solution is wrapped in layer upon layer of complexity.

There are two words that bedevil a settlement: “distrust” and “decommissioning”. Historically, in Northern Ireland politics, nearly everyone has distrusted nearly everyone else.

The Unionists distrusted the Republicans.

The Republicans distrusted the Unionists.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP distrusted British Governments.

The UUP and DUP distrusted Irish Governments – and one another.

The paramilitaries distrusted most politicians and all authority.

The authorities distrusted the paramilitaries and their political spokesmen.

I could go on – but you get the picture.

Distrust breeds fear. More especially, it breeds a fear of making concessions and encourages everyone to hunker down in their established positions.

It is for this reason that successive British and Irish Governments have made policy changes aimed at confidence-boosting in the hope of encouraging reciprocal gestures. Sometimes they have met with success whilst on other occasions they have been rebuffed. Thus, the process inches along – often at a snail’s pace. It was always going to be that way.

By far the biggest stumbling block is decommissioning – the removal of weapons from the political debate. Seemingly straightforward but, in fact, far from it. Decommissioning is – and this will seem contradictory – both essential to the peace process and a red herring. Let me set out why this is so by considering the divergent views.

Protestant politicians and their communities must have decommissioning as a sign of good faith and a guarantee that the gun will not enter into Irish politics again in the future.

The British and Irish Governments, responsible Northern Ireland politicians and the public as a whole share that view and would warmly welcome decommissioning.

It is what they have long sought. For them, it would signal a certainty that the conflict which has haunted them for so long is finally coming to an end.

For the paramilitaries, it is more complex. The Loyalists – whose very name is a misnomer, for their loyalty is more to anti-Catholicism, anti-Republicanism and anti-Southern Irish sentiment than loyalty to the British Crown – embrace many splinter groups often at war with each another. When they offer decommissioning, it is primarily as a lure to the IRA. Any disarming from them is but a token gesture and any weapons surrendered can be replaced easily.

The IRA has a deep-rooted conviction that is difficult to overcome. Their philosophy is that “the movement” never surrenders. They argue that no paramilitary group has ever given up its arms unilaterally and many in the IRA bitterly oppose any move to do so. I once tried to make it easier for them by suggesting they could destroy their own weapons. No-one was asking them to hand them over to the British Army or to be destroyed in public. I was content for there to be independent verification of destruction and made clear I would not mind if the twisted metal was used to fashion a statue of Eamon de Valera. The present Government take the same position. But the IRA’s suspicion of the motives of British Government is deep rooted and lingers on: the response from them has been minimal.

Even so, the IRA – like the Loyalists – toy with token decommissioning for public relations purposes. Such gestures are helpful but much more will be needed – not least to convince Unionists to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly and remain there. The underlying situation is not easy: the paramilitaries of the IRA have a psychological block to de-commissioning and Unionists have no reason to trust them until they have disarmed. Decommissioning is, therefore, essential though movement towards acceptance of this truth has been very stately: as though one were viewing events through a slow motion camera.

The irony is that the surrendering of weapons, so vital to confidence, may turn out to be a red herring, for not all may be delivered up and, even if they were, more can be purchased readily. It’s a Catch 22: disarmament is a touchstone of good faith and yet, if it occurs, it may not turn out to be the guarantee of peace that is sought.

One unintended – and unwelcome – side effect of progress in the Peace Process is the impact it seems to be having on voting intentions in Northern Ireland. As progress is made, voter support rises for the more extreme political alternatives – Sinn Fein and the DUP – and diminishes the political base of the UUP and the SDLP, who have striven hardest for an agreement. It is a perverse situation.

The most obvious loser is the SDLP – for so long the beneficiary of support from the moderate majority of Catholic/Republican sentiment. As Sinn Fein becomes less extreme, more mainstream, takes part in the work of the Assembly, sloganises about peace, becomes a more visible daily presence, it begins to appear a more relevant political party than the well-meaning SDLP. The UUP faces the risk of decline for more complex reasons. First, internal disputes and continual sniping at their leader (always a recipe to turn off the electorate); second, the easy criticism that can be levelled at the inevitable compromises and pragmatism of Government. Evaporation of support for the latter point is particularly galling since – outside of autocratic dictatorships – pragmatism is an essential ingredient of democratic Government.

And yet, in the 1980s and 1990s, a mode of argument arose that pragmatism was weak, had no spine, and that only unblinking pursuit of pre-determined motives represented strong Government. The argument is nonsense of course but it seduced many people to its cause and its divisive impact is apparent still – not least in the DUP’s assault on the voting support of the Ulster Unionists.

The road towards peace in NI has been the work of many hands. Politicians from a range of political persuasions, men of religion – both Catholic and Protestant, Civil Servants in London, Dublin and Belfast, many brave individuals, distinguished foreigners serving on Commissions, the EU and successive US Governments. All have had an input.

So have events, some of them tragic. I have spoken already of domestic tragedies but the wicked terrorism in Oklahoma, New York and Washington brought home to the US the pain and the horror of violence for political ends. So did the sight of the IRA being caught red-handed in collaboration with terrorists in Colombia. All this helped dry up funding for terrorist groups and helped push them towards a political settlement.

Curbing economic deprivations is an important ingredient in cutting away the support structures of the paramilitary groups. What does terrorism feed on? Hatred and bigotry, of course. But not only that. It fuels up on resentment as well. It feeds on deprivations and poor living standards. People with little or nothing to lose can often be attracted to desperate causes. Terrorism gives a focus to their lives.

So the pursuit of growth and success of the economy in the Republic of Ireland is vital in every way and the British Government needs to focus on the deprived areas of Northern Ireland that – perversely – so often provide comfort to the men of violence, whose behaviour frightens away the investment that can provide jobs and improve living standards for the community as a whole.

Today – although there is still serious deprivation in Shankill and West Belfast, the overall economic situation is greatly improved – much is happening that is good. Unemployment – very high for decades – is now in single figures across the Province as a whole, with the centre of Belfast flourishing as it enjoys substantial redevelopment. All this should be engendering confidence.

But an improving economy must by matched by political normality. “Normality” for Northern Ireland must include an active role for the devolved Assembly. This is vital.

It is vital – because responsibility for policy breeds a responsible attitude. That is why I wished to see an Assembly established: I believed it would provide a vehicle for Protestant and Republican politicians to sit together and take joint responsibility for their society. The idea had already been in my mind when it was suggested to me by Ian Paisley; it was rejected as a “back-door Stormont” by John Hume; it intrigued the then Taoiseach John Bruton but infuriated the Foreign Minister, Dick Spring; it was deeply controversial and yet made a good deal of sense.

Once established, the Assembly was moderately successful. Old opponents worked together, albeit often disagreeing face to face and using the Assembly for Party political purposes, but also delivering new policy and benefits to Northern Ireland. More important is what the Assembly could – and should – do: namely, frame fresh economic and social policies to curb the ills of generations, encourage inward and domestic investment, and bring together divided communities.

Instead, the Assembly has been suspended following violence from all sides and a general lack of confidence in collective goodwill. As ever in Northern Ireland, the events leading to suspension had all the elements of Greek theatre: challenges to David Trimble from the ruling Council of the UUP, the raiding of Sinn Fein offices by the police investigating intelligence gathering by Republicans, and the arrest of a senior Sinn Fein figure accused of having documents of use to terrorists. It is easy to see why there was a collapse of confidence.

The need now is to rebuild the Assembly which is why the British and Irish Prime Ministers have met twice recently at Hillsborough to plan the way forward.

I understand these meetings made good progress although, as ever, the Parties needed time to consider proposals and consult their grassroots before giving approval. Soon, the two Prime Ministers will meet again to publish their proposals to finalise implementation of the Belfast Agreement and repair the damage to it of recent events.

A settlement – with goodwill, and an outbreak of trust – could be tantalisingly close and, if achieved, would lead to the progressive withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland, the monitoring of ceasefires, new policing arrangements, human rights changes and the return of the Assembly.

We need also, the end of all preparations for paramilitary activity by Loyalists and Republicans alike. The end of paramilitary will being enforced on the streets. Above all – again and again – the restoration of trust.

But all may yet hang upon the destruction of arms. When a family has suffered a loss of life the psychological effect is very great: often there needs to be a period of “closure” before life can resume its normal pattern and peace of mind be re-established. Almost everyone who has lived through the death of a beloved family member or friend understands that emotional movement: from agony – to acceptance – to normality.

The peace movement needs “closure” too: in this case “closure” is the destruction of arms. No one knows for sure how many weapons there are – especially in the hands of the IRA, the dominant paramilitary group – but the sum total is significant. It is probable that there are many tons of explosives in secret caches, together with heavy weaponry, rifles and handguns. All are a threat to peace of mind as well as peace on the streets and must be verifiably destroyed or surrendered.

There is a second element to closure. In 1991 I was sitting in the Cabinet Room of Downing Street on a grey November afternoon when a message was brought into me. It had come through a secret channel of communication opened in 1990 and was from the Provisional Army Council of the IRA. I was convinced then – and remain convinced – that it was approved also by Martin McGuinness – though I should add for the record that he has always denied it. In any event, the message was dramatic.

It said:

“The conflict is over but we need your [British] advice on how to bring it to a close. We wish to have an unannounced ceasefire in order to hold a dialogue leading to peace. We cannot announce such a move as it will lead to confusion to the volunteers, because the press will misinterpret it as a surrender. We cannot meet the Secretary of State’s public renunciation of violence, but it would be given privately as long as we were sure that we were not being tricked.”

The conflict is over. That message helped persuade me to continue on with the Peace Process and, in the following ten years under successive Governments, we have come to be in sight of the end of the Northern Ireland tragedy. The blood that has been spilled requires that end to be secured.

So – we need such a statement again – this time open and acknowledged. The war is over. These are words that the people of Northern Ireland have waited too long to hear. I hope they will not need to wait much longer. There is a place in history for those Irish leaders prepared to turn those words into reality. I know the British and Irish Governments will respond to such a declaration and a new era can be ushered in for Northern Ireland.

Let me return to Tim and Johnathan in whose memory we are here tonight. Were their lives wasted?

In one sense – yes: for they should have been here today – young men on the threshold of life with so much to experience and so much to give.

But, in another sense, the loss of these young lives – and the pain and agony of their families – bears another interpretation. It shook the world. Forced it to think afresh. Closed down options for the men of violence. Impacted deep on the demands for peace. Led to the foundation of this Peace Centre. They are both – forever – an important landmark in the agonisingly slow movement from a path of hatred and violence in Northern Ireland to a now probable future of tolerance, compassion and hope.

Let that forever be their epitaph.