The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Article on Ireland – 15 August 2004

The text of Mr Major’s article on Ireland, published in Future Ireland in August 2004.


Once more the Irish Peace Process is stalled. The blame game will be back in vogue – so has all the hard work of the last decade been for nothing? I don’t think so.

From the moment I arrived at Number 10, Northern Ireland was a priority for me: the issue kept bubbling to the front of my mind. And during my 6½ years as Prime Minister, it never fell from the top of my agenda. I held meetings beyond number at Westminster and in Belfast. Some were interminable. Some were friendly. Some were raucous. Some were hopeful. Some ended in walk outs. It was a panorama of protest and progress.

Invariably, I was struck by the distinction between the personal warmth and charm of those I met, and the depth and savagery of the rivalries that divided them.

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Ireland troubles lie deep in history and have been exacerbated by generations of distrust, recrimination, hatred and outdated tribal attitudes.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

Despite continuing 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 positive moves to justify that optimism. The clamour for normality has grown ever louder.

Of course, “the troubles” are not just political, and nor is the solution to them. There are those within the IRA and the Protestant Groups for whom the nature of the political settlement is all important: but there are many others for whom criminality, sheltering behind a political cause, is 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. Certain in the knowledge they will be isolated by a political settlement, they will continue to oppose it. These people – forever arguing, disputing, deceiving and distrusting – are one of the fundamental reasons why political agreement in Northern Ireland has 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 but this should not be surprising: first, because of the people working from within against a solution; and second, because that elusive solution is wrapped in a mille-feuille 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. Distrust breeds fear. More especially, it breeds a fear of making concessions and encourages everyone to hunker down in their established positions.

By far the biggest stumbling block is decommissioning: the removal of weapons from the political debate. For the paramilitaries this is 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 other. When they offer decommissioning, it is primarily as a lure to the IRA. In practice, any disarming is a token gesture since any weapons surrendered can be replaced easily.

The IRA has a deep-rooted conviction that equates disarmament with surrender. 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 insisting they should be handed over to the British Army or be destroyed in public. I would have been content for there to have been independent verification of destruction and would not have objected if they had used the twisted metal to fashion a statue of Eamon de Valera. But the IRA’s suspicion is deep-rooted and ever-lingering: 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 as though one were viewing events through a slow motion camera.

To achieve a final agreement, we need 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.

This latter requirement means all may yet hang upon the destruction of Arms. When a family has suffered a loss of life the psychological effect is profound: often there needs to be a period of “closure” before life can resume its normal pattern and peace of mind be restored.

The Irish peace movement needs “closure” too: in this case “closure” is the destruction of Arms. No-one knows how many weapons there are – especially in the hands of the IRA – 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. Tokens are helpful – but insufficient.

For the people of Northern Ireland, we must continue to hope that their desire for peace will soon become a reality. But the question still lingers – will the paramilitaries deliver?

We have yet to hear the answer.