The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech to Trinity College Dublin Historical Society – 21 November 2007

The text of Sir John Major’s speech made to the Trinity College Dublin Historical Society on Wednesday 21st November 2007.

Mr Chairman, Mr Auditor, Provost, Ladies and Gentlemen of College Historical Society, Ladies and Gentlemen.

My privilege to propose “that the Best Thanks of the Society are due to the Auditor for his Paper”.

Well done, Tim.

Chancellor, Provost, Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s always a pleasure to come to Dublin and doubly so to be at this famous University.

As you know, Albert Reynolds is unwell and can’t be with us this evening. However – the good news is – he’s recovering and will be out of hospital in a few days. I visited him this afternoon and he was in fine form. I know I speak for Albert Reynolds as well as myself in thanking you for the privilege of receiving this Award for our work on the Irish Peace Process. Timothy Smyth has presented a Paper full of insight and I am delighted to respond to it.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: many people – some acknowledged, many not – contributed to the Irish Peace Process. They came from the Civil Services – I am delighted to see Roderic Lyne and Martin Mansergh here this evening – both of whom were pivotal figures in the whole process. They were crucial. When tempers heated, they cooled them. Tempers cool – they backed us in a way that rose them. They were magisterial. So were members of the Catholic and Protestant communities; the Churches; as well as figures from local and national politics.

Paddy Mayhew, Peter Brooke, Dick Spring, John Bruton come to mind, as significant contributors. So – in different ways – do Jim Molyneaux and John Hume. And – it must also be acknowledged – individuals within the paramilitaries on both sides who realised violence was failing and opened their minds to a political settlement.

Before I arrived at Downing Street, I had very little contact with Ireland – North or South – despite the presence of an Irish grandmother in my family. But, once there, Northern Ireland became a priority, and for long periods the priority. I held meetings beyond number in Westminster and in Belfast. Some were friendly. Some were rancorous. Some were full of hope. Some were interminable. Some ended in walk outs. It was a panorama of protest and progress. I knew from the outset that progress would be two steps forward – and one back: and so it proved.

Invariably, I was struck by the disparity 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 lay deep in history, and were made worse by generations of distrust, recrimination, hatred and outdated tribal attitudes. But, although the roots were ancient, the perceived inequity of the old Stormont Parliament, and the divisive gulf between Unionist and Republican aspirations, kept mutual loathing burning fiercely.

And that loathing had led to carnage that, by the early 1990’s, seemed a permanent and irreversible way of life in Northern Ireland, with violence spinning off to the British mainland. Another atrocity. Another hooded victim. Another soldier dead. Such violence seemed to be so common-place, it often lost its place in the daily news. Shock receded to acceptance. Familiarity stilled the horror of butchery.

But I did not believe the situation was irreversible. Nor, when I met him, did Albert Reynolds. I will now embarrass Albert. I’m sorry, Albert, but what I’m about to say is true. When I met Albert, I liked him instantly – not always the case among politicians. The man I came to know was a pragmatist with convictions – never an ideologue. He was a deal maker: a man who would offer something to gain something. It felt as though I was looking in the mirror. There was hope.

At our very first meeting in No. 10, Albert and I agreed to put a peace process at the forefront of our political agenda. We knew we might well face hostility. Deep-rooted scepticism was certain. Political setbacks were likely. At worst, our careers might end. But at best, innocent people would no longer be killed. During the nearly seven years I worked on the Peace Process, that was the easiest decision I had to take.
In his Paper, Timothy Smyth observed that there were lessons learned that might offer sign-posts to solving other conflicts. He is right: there is one, above all.

Any Peace Process means dialogue: dialogue with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and dialogue – indirect at first – with the paramilitaries. That point about peace making is absolute: you cannot reach an agreement with someone to whom you do not – or will not – talk.

That was my view – and Albert’s too. Yet it was not received opinion.

For years, the IRA had sought a political objective through violence. For years, they had been resisted. It was a dance of death -interminable and pointless. It was also a stand-off that was convenient to the warriors of each side. The IRA could say they were not cowed by the power of the British – and would fight continuously for a United Ireland. The British Government could parade its strength by refusing to talk until the IRA disarmed which, without progress, they would never do. These so-called “strong positions” – these “positions of principle” – merely served to entrench the violence and the killing. And – as Mr Smyth observes – there was a cumbersome baggage of ideology on every side.
Albert Reynolds and I approached the problem in the belief there would be a settlement because there must be. That ideology must give way to common sense. Some thought that was a triumph of hope over experience: we did not.

It seemed to me the groundwork for a settlement was obvious:-

(i) We had to agree objectives between London and Dublin for – if the two Governments had opposing agendas – the chance of a settlement was minimal.

(ii) We needed to get inside the mind of the paramilitaries. People would be astonished at how many hours I spent trying to think myself into their minds – particularly those of the leaders of the IRA. What were their motives? Why did they act as they did? What constraints did they face within their own organisation?

(iii) We knew we had to address the grievances that made it so easy for mischief makers to stir up hatred and foment disputes between the two communities.

(iv) And we had to offer an end product that would encourage those within the paramilitaries, who had begun to realise violence would never succeed and were looking for a political settlement.

(v) We also had to address contradictory ambitions and fears. Unionists feared a united Ireland. Nationalists favoured it. Both communities needed reassuring.

Returning to Mr Smyth’s observation about lessons learned: the above approach, with modifications, has to be the bed-rock of any approach to end violent conflict.

Putting together a Peace Plan in the early 90s was like playing multi-dimensional chess. It was a Rubik’s cube in Gaelic. What pleased London often worried Dublin. What was acceptable to the Unionists was anathema to the Nationalists. What was welcomed by some in Parliament was condemned by others. A peace process was never going to be a smooth ride – and it wasn’t.

The Joint Declaration

In his Paper, in a masterpiece of under-statement, Mr Smyth refers to “elements of mistrust” on both sides. He is absolutely right. Mistrust was a serious impediment to progress. Time and again committed advocates on both sides used leaks to the Media – often half-truths – to highlight fears and submerge progress. Everything that emerged from a Republican source (or was welcomed by Republicans) was poked at suspiciously and denounced by Unionists. The reverse was also true. The history of the Joint Declaration is a classic illustration of this tendency.

In retrospect, the Joint Declaration stands out. But – in the early 1990’s – other avenues were being considered too.

There was, of course, the three-stranded talks between the constitutional Parties; London and Dublin and North and South. They had many frustrations and deficiencies and ended up as a blind alley, but they were a source of ideas to determine what was acceptable to all sides, and what was a show-stopper. One point we learned was crucial for later: the political Parties would talk to the British Government but not to each other – yet we learned they would do so if elected to the same body. Years later, that led to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the unexpected partnership of Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness. In the 1990’s that would have seemed impossible, yet it is only when extreme positions are isolated, or neutered or brought together that a solution is possible.

There was also the “back-channel” communication between the British Government and the Provisionals – a crucial clearing house and test bed. It was politically risky for the British Government, but also – let us not forget – for the Provisionals as well. When a newspaper “leaked” the existence of this channel, many were affronted by its existence – but making peace is a messy business and neither then nor now do I have any apologies to offer on this score: it advanced the Peace Process; it spelled out to the Provisionals what was – and was not – on offer; it removed misunderstandings; it helped save lives. To my mind, that is ample justification for it.

It was in February 1993, through this “back channel”, that I received the following message:

“The conflict is over but we need your 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.”

In London, we gave this message a very restricted circulation. Even so, amongst close colleagues, some were suspicious. Some saw a political trap to lure the British Government into concessions. Few thought it would yield anything worthwhile. Doubt, as well as distrust, was ever-present on all sides throughout the process.

The advice I received from the Security Services was that the message was from the Provisional Army Council – more specifically, they thought, from Martin McGuinness – although I should place on record that he has always denied sending it. This is a pity since – even in the darkest days – those words encouraged me to believe a settlement was possible. And there were many dark days.

In his Paper, Mr Smyth reminds us of the bombs at Bishopsgate, Shankill Road, and Warrington to which he could have added the Loyalist murders at a pub in the village of Greysteel, in revenge for the IRA’s bungled bombing at Shankill Road. These atrocities were pivotal in hardening the public mind against violence, and boxing in the paramilitaries.

I remember those bombs with the clarity of yesterday. I was in my garden in Huntingdon on a bright and beautiful Easter Saturday when I heard news of the Warrington bomb which fatally injured two little boys. It came only days after I had received assurances of progress from the Provisionals through the “secret link”. It was the only time I seriously considered breaking off the Peace Process. I did not – for two reasons: – firstly, I did not want any more loss of life – not least those of children: and secondly, I had begun to understand the psyche of the IRA. They believed they had to show themselves to be “strong” to placate their volunteers: that meant violence would accompany progress as, in their own way, they sought to show they were not making concessions, not – in their own mind – giving ground. Blood and progress marched together. It was a bitter assessment, but I believe it was the right one.

The concept of a Joint Declaration had been around for some years. John Hume and Gerry Adams had pioneered the idea in 1988. Various private enterprise and Government texts had been floated but none was remotely likely to gain the support of the Unionist community. They were seen as too “Green” in complexion. Therefore – to the Unionists – they were flawed. Therefore, they were denounced. As so often in Irish politics, a sound idea was spoiled by its parentage – only a text jointly negotiated and agreed by the British and Irish Governments had any chance of acceptance North and South of the Border. And any negotiated text was bound to be very different from the early cock-shies. Nonetheless, the Hume-Adams’ dialogue was important and opened a window.

It was not easy to agree a text. Officials – North and South – worked at it incessantly. Road-blocks were common. Disputes were frequent. I had innumerable hours of meetings with my own Officials, as no doubt, did Albert on his own side. Frequently we met – or resolved points over the telephone lines. I recall a meeting at a European Summit that dwarfed the importance of the Summit itself. And a stand-up row – in private – in Dublin Castle, when Albert and I deserted our Officials for one of the fiercest rows I ever had in Government. We survived it and returned to negotiation: that afternoon, I knew we’d reach a settlement.

Albert Reynolds and I resolved the final points in the text of the Joint Declaration over the telephone on 14th November 1993 and announced it publicly sixteen hours later.

What was the Declaration about? Was it worth all the effort?

I believe it was. After 74 years of partition and almost 25 years of violent conflict, the British and Irish Governments – for the first time – had agreed principles upon which they could both unite.

The Joint Declaration promised fair play to both communities. The Unionists were guaranteed there would be no imposition of a United Ireland, and the Republicans were guaranteed their traditions and aspirations would be respected. It was implicit that if there were ever to be a majority in the North for unification, that the British Government would not stand in the way. In addition – and crucially – the Paramilitaries were promised a full place in democratic politics once they abandoned violence. It was a powerful symbol that pointed the way to a very different future for Ireland.

The impact of the Joint Declaration was immediate. It received massive public support at home – and worldwide. It isolated the men of violence. Encouraged the IRA to offer a cease-fire. And drained from all the paramilitaries the subliminal sympathy that earned them funding, recruits and public tolerance from their own communities. I believe, too, it offered hope where none previously existed.

Much work still needed to be done. Political restrictions on the paramilitaries were eased. The Joint Framework Documents, negotiated with Albert Reynolds and finalised in 1995 with John Bruton, bridged a gap towards a final settlement. Indeed, re-assembled they were the basis for The Good Friday Agreement – when a new future was finally put in place for all Ireland.

Prior to 1990, the Prime Minister and The Taoiseach met irregularly as sparring partners, often playing to their own gallery: today, the political relationship between London and Dublin is a relationship of allies – of friends; old opponents – once viscerally at war with one another – now work together.

Ireland saw a new future and grasped it – putting an end to a black history that cost too many lives and dashed the hopes of too many generations. The pessimists were confounded. Reason prevailed – and the winner was – is – Ireland.