The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech in Northern Ireland – 9 June 2016

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir John Major in Northern Ireland on 9 June 2016.

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to be back in Northern Ireland, and with you this morning.

Tony and I are here to talk about the European referendum, and why it matters for you, for Northern Ireland, for Anglo-Irish relations,
…and for the future of our United Kingdom as a whole.

In a moment, Tony will talk specifically about Northern Ireland, but I want to take a step back and ask: what’s this referendum really all about?

First, it’s about the economy, jobs and the wellbeing of everyone in the UK.

Just like Prime Ministers before us and since, Tony and I fought hard to persuade our fellow European leaders to continue to build the Single Market: we did so because it is of huge benefit to Britain. It is the richest free market in the world and we have full access to it: that is enormously valuable for our prosperity.

To risk losing it – or reducing our access to it – seems to be pure folly.

Secondly, our security and strength on the world stage is also vital.

If we work with our partners in Europe we can achieve things in the British interest that we cannot do alone.

I know that immigration remains a concern for people – but, in my view, that would remain a contentious issue whether we were in or out of Europe.

It is a difficult and complex problem, but there are no simple answers to it, no magic bullets that solve it.

But – this morning – I want everyone here to understand something else – something that is critical in this debate – and for all our futures.

This referendum is also about the people in every part of the United Kingdom, and the union that we have built together over generations.

That’s important to all of us – it’s about the ties of friendship, family and affection that bind us together.

Men and women; friends and neighbours; workmates and classmates…

…all of us living together side-by-side in a union of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

And I say without a shadow of doubt in my mind, that the wrong outcome on June 23rd will affect our union; and will jeopardise that unity.

That means the unity of the United Kingdom itself is on the ballot paper in two weeks’ time.

Let me explain.

First, Scotland.

Two years ago, on the eve of the Scottish Referendum…

…thousands and thousands of people gathered in Trafalgar Square to wave Union Jacks and sing songs together – imploring the Scottish people not to vote for independence.

It was a last-ditch appeal, an emotional plea, from the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish to stick together, to stay together – to preserve the most successful union in history.

Wisely, the Scots did so – against the advice of the SNP.

I believe that, with one qualification, the matter is now settled for a generation and beyond.

But it is a very big qualification.

Because if Scotland votes to stay in the European Union, but the UK as a whole chooses to leave, there is a serious risk of a new referendum…
not straight away, perhaps– but ultimately nationalist pressure for another shot at leaving the UK could prove to be uncontrollable and irresistible.

And in those circumstances – if the UK was outside the EU – I can well envisage a different result.

That is the risk … that a British exit from the EU could re-open the whole question, and tear apart the United Kingdom.

So I say to everyone who is undecided, everyone who is wavering: please understand the potential – even the likely – consequence of a vote to leave the EU.

Not just a shrunken economy, not just a diminished United Kingdom on the world stage; but a smaller country in a very real and literal sense.

The most successful union in world history would be broken apart for good.

That appalling outcome could follow the wrong choice on June 23rd.

But of course there is also the question of Northern Ireland – itself a vital part of the Union.

Tony and I know more than most how carefully the peace process was stitched together over many years.

We met the families of the victims, whose pain when their loved ones were murdered was raw and real – and, I imagine, still is.

We know about the stops and starts of that process; the setbacks; the compromises and the contradictions that are inherent in building a peace that can endure.

I think back to working with my friend, Albert Reynolds, and the breakthrough that was the Downing Street Declaration, sowing the seeds for the IRA ceasefire and then the chance – in time – for a negotiated and peaceful constitutional settlement. I carried this forward: Tony completed it.

Throughout my years as Prime Minister, no issue consumed my thoughts and my attention more than the goal of peace and stability here.

I was convinced that, however intractable the Troubles seemed…

…however routine the daily cycle of violence became…

…however deeply the hatred was felt….

…that a solution could and must be found.

That with patience, care and hard work, we could find a way. Many people, both well-known and unknown, helped in that endeavour.

I pay tribute to Tony for all that he did, to the Irish government…and to all parties here in Northern Ireland for having the strength and commitment to see the Process through. And to the communities, here and in the South, who were sick of violence and wanted a better future.

And it is an incredible achievement to see a successful power-sharing executive working in Northern Ireland – a dream thought impossible 30 years ago.

Indeed, it is a mark of the progress made in Northern Ireland that, today, elections are now conducted with more courtesy and good humour than many other campaigns I can think of.

So I believe it would be a dreadful mistake to do anything that has any risk of destabilising the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins stability in Northern Ireland.

But that is what a British exit from the EU would do: it would throw all of the pieces of the constitutional jigsaw into the air again, and no-one could say where they might land.

We can all be proud at what Northern Ireland has achieved … but we should never take the very good state of Anglo-Irish relations for granted.

Today, relations between the UK and Ireland have never been better.

And though I’ve no doubt – whatever happens – that they will remain cordial, I do worry about the prospect of a British exit, which would leave Ireland on the other side of the table in a new negotiation between Britain and 27 other EU countries.

I fear that would have a totally negative effect on the relationship between our two countries.

And there is also the severe economic damage that leaving would cause in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland alike.

And all of the issues that we thought were completely settled – like the Common Travel Area – would suddenly be thrown into real doubt.

In a moment, I will hand over to Tony to talk in more detail about Northern Ireland but, before I do so, let me end by saying this: here you have two former Prime Ministers from two different parties. Rivals on many occasions, but never over the Peace Process for Ireland; never on the unity of the UK; never on the importance of our relationship with Europe.

It’s not a coincidence that every living former Prime Minister, and the current Prime Minister, shares the same view about Europe.

We know, because we have sat at the top European table that despite its many frustrations, our membership of the EU magnifies Britain’s influence in the world, and significantly improves the living standards of the British people.

And we are in no doubt of this: our membership is also an absolutely vital part of our finely-tuned and carefully-preserved union.

Throw away the membership of Europe, and don’t be surprised if – in the end, as a consequence – we accidentally throw away our union as well.

Please don’t put that at risk.

Make a positive and patriotic choice to remain – choose to fight for the UK’s interest in Europe, and in so doing, safeguard the UK’s interests at home as well.

That’s the right choice for our country, and for our future.

In two weeks’ time, I hope it is the choice we will all make.

And with that, let me hand over to Tony.