The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech on the 20th Anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration – 11 December 2013

The text of Sir John Major’s speech marking the 20th anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration. The speech was made in Dublin, Ireland, on Wednesday 11th December 2013.


It’s always a pleasure for me to come to Dublin – a city of which I have very fond memories, in a country for which I have great affection.

Eighteen years ago, I was here to discuss a key piece of architecture in the Peace Process – the Joint Framework Document. That evening, in the margins of my discussions with John Bruton, Norma and I went to the National Concert Hall with John and Finola to catch the second half of Handel’s Messiah.

On arrival, we received an overwhelmingly warm reception from the audience: This, I am sure, was due to John’s popularity, but it reinforced my determination to end the friction that had bedevilled Anglo-Irish relations for too long. That night is one of the most treasured memories of my years in Office and it’s good, yet again, to be back here in Dublin.

Twenty five years ago it would have seemed improbable – to some inconceivable – that a former British Prime Minister would be invited to celebrate the anniversary of a political agreement that was a staging post in making the UK and Ireland more contented neighbours than at any time in their long and tortuous history.

Yet it is so – and British and Irish alike can now focus on our present and future relationship instead of all the disputes, conflicts, rights and wrongs of the past that poisoned it for so long. It’s time to put them behind us. Of course, the past will remain in the memory, but it mustn’t stand in the way of the future.

Britain and Ireland are the closest of neighbours. Our cultures intermingle: we share a taste for Shakespeare and Shaw; for Milton and Beckett. We enjoy the performances of Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh; of Maggie Smith and Peter O’Toole.

Irish citizens with residency qualifications can vote in UK elections. Our trade and investment flows are huge. British exports to Ireland exceed those to India and China collectively or, alternatively, to the whole of Africa – added together: In return, Britain is Ireland’s largest market. We are both members of the EU and share sporting ambitions with the Lions, the Barbarians and in the Ryder Cup. We steal Eoin Morgan, Ed Joyce and Boyd Rankin to play cricket for England, and you send an unending stream of Irish jockeys to ride to victory in our classic races.

When Ireland faced financial problems, the British Government was swift to help. It is a new (and better) relationship, sealed in May 2011 by the first ever State visit made by a British Monarch to Ireland. And next Spring, President Higgins’ State Visit to England will further enhance our mutual interests.

The gateway to this new partnership is the success of the Peace Process. This had no single architect, no single event, no single hero. Many people, known and unknown, contributed over a long period – including, above all, the men and women of Ireland who became impatient at the delay in resolving the troubles; angry at the senseless violence that marred daily life; and frustrated by the failure to resolve an essentially political dispute. Their voice and actions made the extremists in both camps realise that the Irish people expected something better from them and, in this, both Protestant and Catholic clerics played a vital role.

In December 1993, the Downing Street Declaration set out principles that both the British and Irish Governments were agreed upon: no-one could claim that it’s an easy read. In fact, to let you in on a secret, I did win an award for the Declaration which I failed to share with Albert Reynolds. It was a tin of rhubarb … from the Campaign for Plain English – their annual award for gobbledygook.

But language is important in the land of James Joyce, and the medium was part of the message. The Declaration pointed up agreements, set a direction, and opened up a future that had once seemed impossible to unlock.

“No heroes”, I said, and I shall stick to that. But I want to say something about my counterpart in agreeing the Joint Declaration. Albert Reynolds is not well now, and his illness is a cruel trick of fate for a man who gave so much to break the Gordian knot of Anglo-Irish distrust. Although I’m sad Albert cannot be with us this evening, I’m delighted that Kathleen is here – and it was a real treat for me and Norma to spend some time with the Reynolds family earlier today.

I like and admire Albert very much. He is – quintessentially – Irish: most at ease philosophically in the wearing of the Green. One of the most mortifying experiences I endured as Prime Minister was to sit between Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring – both howling like dervishes – at Twickenham in 1994 when Ireland won by a single point [13-12]. In negotiation, Albert fought like that rugby team – fought and fought again for the Irish point of view but, above all, he sought a way to end the bloodshed and open up a new future for the country he loved so much. He came looking for agreement, not an argument, and was prepared to take risks and make concessions to achieve that outcome. The more I saw of him – despite all the hurdles, despite all the frustrations – even the rows! – the more confident I became that we could and would find common ground.

Albert and I were both helped by some remarkable civil servants – most especially Martin Mansergh in Dublin and Roderic Lyne in London: their work behind the scenes – and with one another – was untiring. Paddy Mayhew and Dick Spring were also crucial to the agreement, and I’m delighted to see Dick here this evening. There are, of course, many more names that merit recognition, but time forbids me from mentioning them all. But they know who they are and what they did – and that is the most important thing.

Of all nations, the Irish love history – and family. And Albert’s as-yet-unborn great great grandchildren can be proud of their ancestor’s role in building a momentum that gave peace a chance.

Albert, I see you too rarely, but think of you often: I am proud to call you my friend.

The agreement reached between the British and Irish Governments was crucial in putting pressure on the violent fringes in both the Unionist and Nationalist communities. It did box them in. It did cut down their support. It did begin to cut off their financial lifeline. In the eyes of many of their former supporters, they were no longer seen as fighters for a political cause but, instead, as a barrier to peace, responsible for so much misery, so many deaths – often of innocent bystanders, unconnected to any political struggle.

By the early 1990s, a number of instincts were coming together that made a peace process more likely. War weariness was setting in – crucially, even among the Provisionals. Throughout their adult lives they had fought – and achieved nothing towards their cause. Without a political settlement, they foresaw their children and their children’s children facing an equally bleak and violent future.

Public opinion was swinging in the same direction. Moreover, British and Irish membership of the EU was throwing Ministers from London and Dublin closer together in a common cause. Against that background, Albert and I saw opportunities. He knew violence would not change British policy – indeed, it would only serve to harden it.

I knew that a British policy of no talks until the Provisional IRA gave up their weapons and ended all violence would very likely mean that the dance of death would continue. And that dance seemed unending: 632 deaths from 1987 to 1993 – including Enniskillen, Ballygawley, Warrington, Shankill Road. It’s a roll-call of horror.

But the decision to proceed was not a comfortable one, for either side. Easy – because it was right – but not comfortable. We both knew that we were taking a risk. We knew we would face opposition and the profound scepticism bred by two decades of stalemate. Many asked: “How can you possibly talk to an active armed militia?”. Many, looking at history instead of changing circumstances, forecast failure.

Plainly, success depended on the leaders of the IRA engaging in the process. We believed they would, and were prepared to gamble on it. Let me now say something that may surprise you. Throughout the process, I was acutely conscious that IRA leaders were taking a risk, too: if Albert and I upset our supporters we might – as Albert cheerily put it – “be kicked out”. That was true – but the IRA’s supporters were more deadly than our backbench colleagues – and their leaders were taking a risk too – possibly with their own lives.

From the moment the process started, I spent countless hours trying to think myself into the mind and tactics of IRA leaders: what were their aims; their constraints; their motives? What would tempt them into agreement?

We knew we had to agree objectives between London and Dublin. We had to address grievances and contradictory ambitions. We needed to offer an end-product, and reassure two communities that had different fears and different ambitions.

The Joint Declaration, agreed with Albert Reynolds, did so: it was the beginning of the end of conflict. For the first time, we had a set of principles on which not only the two Governments agreed, but also the leaders of the two largest parties of the day in Northern Ireland, the SDLP and the UUP. Much credit is due to the untiring efforts of John Hume and Jim Molyneux for the courage they showed in lining up with us.

It was a set of principles strongly supported on both sides of the divide. It demonstrated that there really was an alternative to endless conflict.

The Framework Documents, agreed with John Bruton – who faced great internal opposition but overcame it – carried us forward – and our political successors continued along the same path. I congratulate them warmly upon what they did. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement condemned the past to history and opened a better prospect for both our countries. Let me now look to that future.

First, a word about Northern Ireland. While the success of the peace process has transformed life there, the task of building a normal society is still work-in-progress. The British and Irish Governments need to continue working together to help Northern Ireland become the tolerant, inclusive, shared society we all wish to see.

For too long the “Northern Ireland Question” was the only agenda item between the UK and Ireland: no longer. Last year, David Cameron and Enda Kenny agreed to a future of intensified co-operation across the whole range of Government business.

Work is progressing with a focus on jobs and growth – both vital for living standards and for the long-term future of both countries. Within a few days, Ireland will be exiting its IMF/EU programme which it has executed with great courage and skill. In her handling of the financial crisis, Ireland has been an example to all of Europe.

It hasn’t been easy – or painless. Tax rises and spending cuts are not abstract economic potions: they hurt people’s lives, and Ireland can be proud of how social cohesion has been maintained and the country prepared for a return to better times.

But, in a global market, an open economy such as Ireland’s requires more than domestic economic virtue: in particular, it needs its main trading partners – the US, EU and, above all, the UK – to grow as well.

The US, despite her huge debt, is in growth and, despite her much vaunted “pivot to the East” will not neglect her Irish market: both logic and affection bind Ireland and the US together.

The UK, too, is beginning to recover and – I think – may do so faster than expected. For two decades, the swing towards either recession or growth has been greater than forecast, and I believe the present return to growth will out-perform expectations once again. As it does, the Cameron-Kenny agreement will help both economies.

Europe, I fear, will recover more slowly, and its future policy is less clear. Nonetheless, I do not expect the Euro to collapse – it has too much political will behind it for this to happen – but a Eurozone recovery may be slow and muted. One aspect of UK/European policy is, I imagine, of deep concern to Ireland: will the UK remain in the EU following the referendum on membership?

The reasons for Irish concern are potent. Would a UK withdrawal diminish UK/Irish mutual interest and undercut the improved relationship? Would the UK pay less attention to Ireland if the two countries were not working together on EU trade and competitiveness issues? And – above all, perhaps – would the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland harden with new border controls for the movement of goods or people? And, if so, would this unsettle the Catholic community in the North?

These are rational concerns but, I believe, they are phantoms: I do not expect the UK to leave Europe. It is not the moment for a complex explanation of why I take that view but – in brief – departure would hurt, isolate and weaken the UK, and diminish the EU. It’s easy to demonise Brussels. The EU can be irritating and frustrating: believe me, I know! But those in the UK who want us out have never articulated a viable alternative, let alone a better one.

This is the black hole in their argument – because the truth is that the alternatives would be bleak. As for the EU – it would lose its second-biggest economy; the nation with the longest foreign policy reach; and one of only two member nations with a significant nuclear and military capability. Whilst the rest of the world is binding itself more closely together, if the UK were to leave it would fly in the face of commonsense, self-interest and the drift of history. I cannot believe we would be so foolish.

Let me touch on one further contentious issue where the UK and Ireland must put right an old injustice. Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. That war prompted the suspension of efforts to introduce Home Rule. It was the backdrop to the Easter Rising, its military suppression, and the moves – eventually abandoned – to introduce conscription to Ireland in 1918; all of which had a profound influence on the course of Irish history once the war ended.

As we mark this Anniversary, we must be prepared to face the past in as open and honest a way as possible, however uncomfortable some of it may be. As Santayana said, 150 years ago, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. So, in the UK, young people will be at the centre of these commemorations. Our hope is to build an enduring legacy, so that future generations remember the war and how it came about.

In Ireland, the challenge is slightly different.

Your former President, Mary McAleese, who did so much to promote peace in Northern Ireland, called the Irish soldiers of the First World War doubly tragic.They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Then, at home in Ireland, their memory fell victim to a war for independence.

The failure to remember them in Ireland is all the more remarkable when one considers the huge numbers involved. Well over 200,000 Irishmen fought in the British army in the First World War and, of these, some 50,000 were killed.

Those figures mean that most Irish families will have had a grandfather or a great uncle who fought in the war. It is therefore no surprise that, in these less inhibited times, there is so much interest here in Ireland in finding out more about this lost generation.

Our two governments in Dublin and London are working closely together on the Great War Anniversaries, which form part of a wider decade of commemorations of the events that led to Ireland’s independence.

As emotions have cooled with the passage of time, I am hopeful that these commemorations will provide an opportunity to reflect on the tumultuous events of a century ago in a calmer, less emotive way.

Of course, there is a risk that people of ill will might try to use this opportunity to re-open old wounds and deepen divisions. But we must not let our shared history be hijacked for nefarious purposes when the two Governments are working so closely together in a spirit of historical accuracy, mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation. Twenty years ago, that might not have been possible. But today, thank God, it is.
Conducted in the right way – and the Taoiseach’s and Tanaiste’s presence at Remembrance Ceremonies in Northern Ireland last month were exactly the right way – these commemorations should allow us to honour different traditions, overcome any divisions that remain, and inspire harmony in our future relations.

Let me sum up my message with a quote from that great Irish author, clergyman and satirist, Jonathan Swift:

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying …. that he is wiser today than yesterday”.

At times in the past we have all been in the wrong. And today, I believe we are wiser than yesterday.

That is why I have such optimism for the future, and why it gives me such enormous personal pleasure to be here twenty years on from those first steps towards peace. The full fruits of this peace may lie ahead, but the path has been set and, I hope, future generations in Britain and Ireland will enjoy a relationship that – although once thought to be impossible – is now fact.

Ireland’s relationship with the UK and its future – both North and South – has never looked so bright as it does here this evening.