The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the Inaugural Albert Reynolds Memorial Lecture – 10 December 2018

The text of the speech made by Sir John Major at the inaugural Albert Reynolds Memorial Lecture held in Longford, the Republic of Ireland, on 10 December 2018.

An invitation to deliver the Inaugural Albert Reynolds Memorial Lecture was irresistible to me, for Albert was a friend I cared about, an ally who mattered, and a man I miss.

I’m so sorry that, due to ill health, Kathleen cannot be with us today, but I am delighted that so many members of the Reynolds family are here….

I have to tell you that walking into Albert and Kathleen’s home in Dublin was like being wrapped into a warm and cosy blanket – while enjoying hot tea and cakes. It was always a treat. And delivering this lecture is a tribute to a very special man.

Albert was never a run-of-the-mill politician. Some thought he’d strayed into politics by accident, but I don’t agree with that at all. Certainly, his background was atypical – for Taoiseachs.

Albert ran dance halls, and thrived on the back of 1960s pop music – but he was always fully prepared, fully equipped for politics: he was a deal-maker supreme, a “bottom line man”, a man who demanded an outcome, a solution, to every problem.

His background – far from being a drawback – was an asset. Albert knew people: how they lived, how they thought, what they cared about.

And, in my experience, he liked people – forever an asset in a politician.

He had no illusions about how some could go astray, but no doubt about what they could achieve if given the opportunity.

And he was an optimist – far more inclined to say “we can do this”, than to rule anything out. To Albert, a deal not made was a failure.

Some people in politics are no more than ambitious concoctions. But Albert was the real deal – in practice and in spirit. The world saw just how authentic he was at his funeral service at Donnybrook Church, when symbols of his life were carried to the altar by members of his family.

The Downing Street Declaration was, of course, laid on the altar. But then so was a pack of cards, and a tin of dog food. Even in death, Albert could shock the politically correct. During that Service I may have had tears in my eyes, but I knew that – watching from afar – Albert was chuckling.

At the very core of Albert was Kathleen and their family, about all of whom he was inordinately proud, and often spoke. I once teased him that “I know you love children because you have so many”, and he replied, “Not enough, John. Not enough.”.

And that is true, too, of his time as Taoiseach. Not long enough. Not long enough by a long chalk.

But Albert left an indelible mark on Irish history and will, I believe, be remembered long – and fondly. I know the memory of Albert will always bring a smile to my face.

In five days’ time it will be the 25th Anniversary of the Downing Street Declaration, which led to paramilitary ceasefires and, ultimately, the Good Friday Agreement. It would never have happened without Albert.

The Declaration didn’t come easily. In negotiation, you give to gain. Albert and I had a common objective, but came at it from different directions. There were many proposals, many drafts.

There were advances and setbacks. Mini triumphs and mini disasters. There were frustrations and rows, gains and concessions. And, of course, we both had critical – often hostile – opponents to persuade or to cajole.

But, with help and advice from many quarters – officials, politicians, the Church – we got there and, for Albert’s sake, I’m delighted you have remembered his own vital contribution to this document, and also honoured me by your invitation.

It is one of the greatest disappointments of my life that I wasn’t able to complete the Peace Process, but I applaud Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern for doing so. They met all the challenges successfully.

The Irish Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill – who is a superb representative of your country – quoted aptly from the Declaration in a recent speech.

The Declaration had a range of objectives: to heal past enmity; to ensure a peace that lasted; and to encourage the economic and social co-operation that was, and is, and always will be, essential for mutual understanding and, with it, peaceful prosperity.

The Declaration was born during a private conversation with Albert in the White Drawing Room of Downing Street. As I recall, we were talking of our respective children over a drink, and then – more widely – the children of the Troubles.

Albert said, “No child should have to face this”, and I agreed, adding “If it were in Surrey or Sussex it would not be tolerated; nor should it be accepted in Northern Ireland.”. So, together, we agreed to try and end it, and I could never have had a more dedicated partner than Albert Reynolds.

Were we together this evening, Albert and I would be concerned about Brexit; the Irish border; the protection of the Peace Accord; and – perhaps most important of all – the long-term relationship between our two countries.

As the Peace Process advanced in the 1990s – and especially after the Good Friday Agreement was signed – the Anglo-Irish relationship blossomed.

Our joint history is chequered, but it was put behind us: not forgotten, perhaps, but no longer used as a weapon with which to attack one another.

In the last two decades, the Anglo-Irish relationship has been better – and closer – than at any time in our history. Now, once again – as the UK leaves the EU – there is reason to be concerned.

The Republic – as well as the UK – needs the power-sharing executive to return to its duties in Northern Ireland. It needs to ensure that now – and in the future –there is no hard border dividing the island of Ireland; and it needs a future that embraces what Ireland and the UK have in common.

Some opinion – including many who believe themselves to be Unionists – has shown a breath-taking ignorance of the likely impact that unsettling the Good Friday Agreement will have on Ireland, both North and South.

To them, the Irish demand for a “backstop” is a bogus ploy to keep the UK in a Customs Union: in truth, a backstop is of vital national interest for Ireland and for the UK.

As our own Prime Minister has said, this is not a demand imposed on the UK by Dublin or Brussels – it is an interest we all share.

Furthermore, the Brexiteers claim that the backstop damages the Union is wholly misguided. The greatest danger to the Union would be a hard border that damaged jobs and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

If the people of Northern Ireland see a border returned – together with no power sharing at Stormont – will they not look once again at a United Ireland?

The plain truth is this: the future of the Union is protected, not undermined, by avoiding a hard border.

If the House of Commons defeats Mrs May’s plans tomorrow, the risk of a hard border once again becomes possible.

Even if her plans are approved, the problem is not solved, but temporarily put on hold – until a “frictionless” border moves from myth to reality; or until a long-term deal is reached that removes the need for any border at all.

A hard border – now, or at the end of a long transition period – would be disastrous. That said – whatever may happen at Westminster this week or later – I do not believe a majority of Members of Parliament will permit a hard border to become a reality.

The reckless few, who are careless of its likely effect, are a clear minority. And with good reason.

Of course, a new border would not remotely resemble its hated predecessor – with its barbed wire, its listening posts and its Army check-points.

But any new border – however gentle its intent – would become a symbol, and thus a target. Both physically and emotionally it would present not only a barrier between North and South; between Unionist and Nationalist; but between the UK and her nearest neighbour.

The fear – that must not be forgotten – is this: any border, be it now or in the future, risks creating an impediment to the excellent bilateral relations of recent years. That, truly, would be a tragedy.

Peace is at risk if we erect barriers that remind people of ancient disputes: it will only be a way of life we can rely if we create a future in which old protagonists can live and work together.

Peace is not secure – it never is – and any new border would be a focus for the wild men on the fringes to reactivate old disputes and hatreds that should be laid to rest – for good. Until sectarianism is ended, that will never be fully achieved.

Some hardline pro-Brexit voices have claimed that European and Irish opposition to a “hard” border is merely a means of frustrating Brexit.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They are blind to the reality.

As Sir Hugh Orde, former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has said – the political consequences of Brexit “will play into the hands of those who are still determined to destroy the relative peace we have enjoyed”.
“Customs Posts”, Sir Hugh added, “would be a target for dissident paramilitaries”. Sadly, such dangerous people are still around – in both communities.

Those who mock and disparage the “backstop” should reflect on the risks of destroying it, and stop relying on uninvented, fanciful, technical alternatives that, for now, exist nowhere.

At stake is not only community relations, but security – and, with it, lives as well. We should not forget that the “Troubles” began in the 1960s with the murder of Customs Officials at the North/South border.

A “no deal” scenario would have many damaging repercussions for the UK and Ireland.

If – by accident or design – the UK was forced to trade under WTO rules, both sides would be forced to apply customs tariffs on imports from the other.

This would not be optional. Under WTO rules, the UK and Ireland could not reach a bilateral “sweetheart” deal of low tariffs – even if they wished to do so.

The UK would have to charge the same tariffs to Ireland as to any other member of the WTO worldwide.

And Ireland would have to reciprocate. The impact on business – and farming – would be instant and profound. This is no way for friends and neighbours to treat one another.

But, once again – for what it is worth – I do believe wise counsel will prevent this outcome.

I have made no secret of my own view that the UK leaving Europe is a colossal error. It is a lose-lose decision for both sides. It betrays the internationalist past of the UK, and undermines her future.

Most of the world believes we have taken leave of our senses, and so, I believe, will future generations. However, that is an argument I would prefer to make in the UK – and not here this evening.

But what of Europe? How are they affected? That is an argument for now – and for Ireland as a member of the European Union. Is the whole of Europe, including the UK, better off with a strong European Union or a weak one?

Across Europe, some extreme nationalists believe it would be better if the European Union collapsed and we returned to a Europe of nation states. I believe they are profoundly wrong in that judgement.

We live in a world in which America – so long the guarantor of European safety – is turning her interest increasingly towards Asia-Pacific.
China – with the largest navy in the world – is now growing both in economic and military power, and is prepared to use that power for political gain. Russia is, once again, behaving as a rogue nation.

In the light of these developments, is Europe better or worse off being united rather than divided? Undoubtedly, it is better united.

Are we all at greater risk if Europe is weakened? Undoubtedly yes – both economically and militarily.

Is the world order better balanced with America, China and a strong European Union broadly economically equal, or with the European Union minus Britain falling below the economic authority of their two rivals? The answer is obvious.

And yet the British departure will not only weaken the UK but – certainly more important to the wider world – diminish the role of the EU.

The EU will lose:

Sixty five million citizens, and its fastest-growing economy; potentially, the largest economy in Europe;

It will lose one of only two powers with a nuclear capacity and a significant military capability;

It will lose the nation with the longest and deepest foreign policy reach; and

It will also lose the only buffer the EU has had to hold back policies promoted by Germany and France in partnership.

British pragmatism and caution will be sorely missed by smaller EU countries: on many occasions, the UK was their protector.

Time and again, it has not been unusual for the UK, alone, to oppose a European policy – while other member states remained silent – and later be thanked for having done so.

The UK’s departure means that, for the first time, the European Union is contracting and not expanding. This will weaken the EU – especially when set against the superpowers of America or China.

The British departure is likely to hasten European reform – which will involve Ireland as a Member of the Eurozone.

Over the next few years, I expect members of the Eurozone to further align fiscal policy to protect the Euro even though – at present – that is not politically acceptable.

I do not believe – after the Greek experience – that the Eurozone will hurry to admit new members and, if that assumption is correct, a distinct inner and outer core is likely to take shape.

Other changes – opting in to policies rather than opting out – may be sought by the less consensus-minded countries from Central and Eastern Europe.

Nothing is certain but – ten years from now – the Union may look very different. Ironically, it may be a Union that would be much more amenable to the UK.

The Anglo-Irish relationship will change when the UK leaves the EU – but we need to cherish it, and I will talk of that at greater length tomorrow.

For now, let me simply assert that the relationship should remain precious to us both, and our duty is to ensure that it is.

My working assumption is that the UK will leave the EU in good order and not in chaos. If so, she has a robust political and economic structure – and should be able to weather the almost inevitable economic turbulence upon leaving.

However, as many independent assessments have set out – as well as the Bank of England and the UK Government itself – I do anticipate lower growth, lower inward investment, and – subject to the terms of any future trade deal with the EU – a range of practical (and costly) obstacles for British commerce.

No-one can be certain how long such a trade deal will take to negotiate: or even if aggrieved nations will hold back – or refuse – their consent to any, or all, of it.

What we can be sure of is that the right deal will be tough to get; and an imperfect deal will be hard to sell – and harder still to justify. But, as grievances cool, a deal is in the best interests of both sides.

The City of London is powerful, innovative and pre-eminent. But, post-Brexit, we can assume other financial centres in Europe will wish to challenge its present dominance. That is an unavoidable consequence of the British exodus.

Although I don’t believe the EU can hope to replicate the City in any foreseeable timescale, I do expect they will move towards focusing more financial activity within their own Borders – politics will dictate this as well as long-term self-interest.

Dublin itself may be a beneficiary of this trend.

The wider trade implication of leaving the EU is that the UK not only loses her free trade deal with the European market of 500 million people, but also free trade deals with 53 other nations that were negotiated by the European Union – but only for its Members.

Over time these can be replaced, but, for now, there is a very, very long way to go – and the question arises: are 65 million Britons really likely to get the same favourable treatment as 500 million Europeans?

The UK lives by her trade – so, we must try. But this process will not be swift – or straightforward.

Let me summarise. Barring a sudden outbreak of common sense, and a reality check on national self-interest, the UK will be the first nation to leave the EU.

This will be yet another irony, as the first proposal for a European Union came not – as is generally supposed – from the French cognac salesman, Jean Monnet, but from an Englishman.

Three and a quarter centuries ago, in 1693, William Penn advocated a European “Diet or Parliament” as a policy to end perpetual military conflict on the Continent. It took 280 years and two world wars to convince his fellow Britons that unity was better than division.

Forty three years later, the British people reversed that decision.

It is in the interests of both Ireland and the UK that wise negotiators can now minimise the downside and maximise the opportunities.

Let us hope they will – and they can.

Many futures depend on it – both in my country and in your own.

As I speak, I can hear Albert’s lilting voice pushing us on towards a sensible deal.

We must all do everything we can not to let him down.