The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs – 11 December 2018

The text of the speech made by Sir John Major at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland, on 11 December 2018.


The UK and Ireland in a New World

It’s always a pleasure to come to Dublin, and I’m delighted to be with you this morning … and on such a slow news day….

It’s an especial pleasure to see John Bruton and Bertie Aherne here: both vital contributors to the Peace Process – and to the wellbeing of the island of Ireland.

For me, John was an indispensable partner in negotiating the “Framework Agreement” – an essential mid-step between the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement.

And Bertie, of course, worked tirelessly with Tony Blair to finalise the road to peace, established by that landmark settlement.

I warmly congratulate them on their joint endeavour, and am honoured and delighted to see them here today.

* * * * * * *

There has rarely been a time when International and European Affairs were in such a fluid state, and so it is a uniquely appropriate moment to speak to this Institute.

I will talk of British, Irish and European affairs shortly but first – not least for context – I would like to range more widely.

Before I do, let me turn briefly to events last night in the House of Commons.

Whether a “Remainer” or a “Leaver”, no-one welcomes chaos.

So it is time for everyone to reflect and consider.

Time to turn to reality – not fiction. Reason – not ideology.

We need to calm the markets.

We need to protect the economic wellbeing of the British people.

We need to protect our national interest.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that – to do so – we need to revoke Article 50 with immediate effect.

The clock must be stopped.

It is clear we need the most precious commodity of all …. time.

Time for serious and profound reflection – by Parliament and people.

There will be a way through the present morass – there always is.

In our national interest we must take time to find it.

I hope and trust we will.

Let me now turn more widely ….

Wherever one looks, a new world is forming: it is vigorous, and often contemptuous of old thinking. For a long time democracy, free trade, and the spread of liberal politics seemed unstoppable: we now know they were not.

Democracy hasn’t just plateaued – it is in modest retreat. Many democracies have relapsed over the first two decades of this Century, and there is widespread dissatisfaction in others.

The United Nations reports that, in 2016, over 60 countries saw a decline in civil and political liberties, while only half that number had gains. That trend is continuing.

This suggests that arguments we believed had comprehensively been won: about democracy and the rule of law, about a liberal system of government, about free trade – must be fought and won all over again.

There are no limits to change in our modern world.

This is true of politics, and the structure of world power. It’s true of how we live now, and how we will live in the future. It’s true of health, and the world of work. Globalisation, science, medicine, technology, and public expectations all drive unrelenting change.

Few things in life are certain, but what we can be sure of is that the world of tomorrow – in which the UK and Ireland must live and trade – may be very different from the world of today.

Internationalism – co-operation with and the understanding of others – is becoming unfashionable. An intolerant nationalism is raising its ugly head in far too many countries.

Too often, the art of compromise – consensus politics – is condemned as “weak”. Agreements are more likely to be condemned than applauded, whilst more robust, more extreme, more antagonistic politics is attracting popular support.

Capitalising on discontent – the worst sort of populism – is thriving. Countries like China and Russia have a history of autocratic leadership.

Elsewhere, today, so-called “strong men” rise to power – or, if not power, influence – by preaching self-interest, and promising national wellbeing.

But their idea of wellbeing is often at the expense of minorities, who may not be able to protect themselves. This is alien to the British, Irish and European tradition.

The risk is clear. It is that the international values-based system is under threat. A selfish form of nationalism is on the march. A trend that proclaims “Forget shared values …. it is time for self-interest”, is a hazardous route of travel.

That trend is evident across Europe. It manifests itself in xenophobia. It is anti-foreigner; anti-immigrant; anti-Europe. It is careless of the misfortune of others. It opposes overseas aid. It lacks human empathy or compassion. The drumbeat of its motto is – “Self, Self, Self.”

All this needs to be resisted. There is a better way to go.

After the last World War, the post-war generation faced the most daunting of challenges but – led by America – rose to meet them.
World leaders worked together – across national boundaries, and beyond national self-interest – to build alliances and structures to oppose Communism; protect and build democracy; promote rules-based global trade; and – as far as possible – secure long-term peace. It was visionary.

Out of the rubble of 1945, a new world was built: on shared values, and communal interest. Crude, self-promoting nationalism was defeated, and replaced by inter-national co-operation.

But this laudable achievement is now being eroded, at the very moment it needs to be refreshed. The post-war settlement is out of date and needs to be updated, yet there is little sign of that happening. No-one is looking beyond national self-interest.

At the same time, autocracy is thriving – not only in Russia and China, but in Turkey, in Iran, in Poland, in Hungary, in Brazil – and advancing in many other countries.

Europe is the home and bedrock of democracy. Yet far-right groups are growing across Europe – in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Greece, in Austria, in Holland, in the UK. The concept of crude, intolerant populism finds an echo in many countries.

Even America, the nation which helped finance the rebirth of war-torn Europe with the “Marshall Plan”, now advances under the nationalist slogan of “America First”.

America – for so long the most powerful ally to both our nations – is shifting her focus from the West to the opportunities of Asia-Pacific.

Anglo-Irish and American policies, that have been so closely entwined for so long, are now beginning to diverge.

We believe in free trade: America introduces tariffs.

We support the Paris Climate Accords: America withdraws from them.

We welcome China’s Infrastructure Investment Bank: America does not.

We support the Iran Nuclear Deal: America rejects it, and threatens sanctions on European and British companies if they trade with Iran.
Britain, as a full member of NATO, and Ireland as a member of the Euro Atlantic Partnership Council, see NATO as crucial to global security: President Trump is equivocal.

For the time being, upon these issues, British, Irish (indeed all Europe) and American views are diverging: I look forward to the day when – once again – we are at one.

That is in both the European and American interest: even the Great Republic needs allies she can rely upon.

* * * * *

The most fundamental shift in world power for generations is the rise of China. In many ways that is welcome: a Chinese economic giant in the East – to match the American giant in the West – will better balance the world economy. Together, these two countries may shape the Century to come.

But, as they do, the UK will no longer be part of a European political and trading block that can deal with both of them on a more-or-less equal basis.

This illustrates a new dilemma for Britain – and for Europe. For decades, Britain’s overseas presence has been boosted by our close relationship with America, and our membership of the European Union.

We were a more valued ally of America because of our influence in Europe; and were more valued by Europe because of our close relationship with America.

But, America now appears to be moving away from us both – at the same time as we are moving away from Europe. Britain, shorn of these longstanding allies, is suddenly seen by the world as a mid-size, middle-ranking power, that is no longer super-charged by her alliances.

This will surely diminish our international influence.

Don’t misunderstand me: the UK will still matter – she is an amalgam of four proud and important nations – but she will matter less than once she did.

But the UK leaving the EU is a double loss: the EU is weakened, too.

Europe loses its second largest economy, and one of only two European nuclear powers, with a significant military capacity.

It loses a nation with a worldwide foreign policy reach.

And it loses the most significant counter-weight to the Franco-German policy alliance – a counter-weight that has often spoken out against policies opposed by smaller European nations reluctant to challenge any consensus.

Any weakening of a United Europe – whilst China grows in power; Russia misbehaves; and America become more distant – cannot be in the best interests of Europe.

Let me now turn to the UK and Ireland.

This week is the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the Downing Street Declaration. The Declaration did not bring peace, but it did halt violence and bloodshed, and was an essential preliminary to the Good Friday Agreement.

It did not come easily. It was hard pounding, and the outcome was the work of many hands – in and beyond politics.

But it could not have been done without the vision and commitment of Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach, and I was delighted, last night, to have had the opportunity to pay tribute to Albert in his home town of Longford.

I hope – and believe – that his work on the Peace Process will have earned him an honoured place in Irish history.

As Brexit draws near, Ireland must contemplate a range of issues – among them her changed relationship with the UK; life in the EU without her nearest neighbour; and her future relationship with Northern Ireland.

She must also consider how to re-activate the Power Sharing Executive in Northern Ireland – a core achievement of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is now nearly two years since Northern Ireland had a functioning Government, and it is an indictment of both the DUP and Sinn Fein that they have not reached an accommodation.

Few would deny that community relations have deteriorated during this time. And most would agree the causes of the dispute do not merit ignoring the interests of the electorate for so long.

Everyone must realise that sectarianism has not yet gone: Northern Ireland is still far from a community that votes solely on policy and not identity. History’s legacy is not yet forgotten – or put aside. No-one should forget that.

I understand the deep wounds of past history, and how they became hard-wired into the philosophies of Unionist and Nationalist politicians. There is hurt on both sides. But those wounds need to be healed and not re-opened.

But – let me be blunt – if the DUP and Sinn Fein let old wounds, old suspicions, old enmities take fresh root and live again then the people of Northern Ireland will be the first to lose. They may not be alone: subsequent losers may include the culpable politicians.

Both parties are elected to take up their responsibilities, and every day they find excuses not to do so is a dereliction of their duty to their electors. This is doubly true when the Executive should be jointly considering the impact of Brexit.

Brexit has already inserted its very own poison into the turbulent politics of Northern Ireland. It begins with the DUP’s support for Brexit, which is flatly opposed both by their business base and by the majority of voters in Northern Ireland.

It continues with the Confidence and Supply agreement the DUP reached to support the minority Conservative Government at Westminster.

It may – on occasion – do so, but any formal support has the secondary (and inevitable) effect of undermining the UK Government’s role as an independent and honest broker in solving any problems between the two traditions in Northern Ireland.

Let me ask two questions. Do the Westminster and Dublin Governments wish to see the Power Sharing Executive return to its duties? Self-evidently, yes.

And is the British Government helped or hindered in its persuasion to do so by its dependence on the DUP in the House of Commons? Yet again, the answer is obvious.

I have said before – and continue to believe – that, for this reason, the Confidence and Supply arrangement is a deal that would better have not been made.

I cannot believe, despite its best efforts, that many Nationalists will accept the Government as a fair and dispassionate arbiter – as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement –whilst being politically yoked to the DUP.

The enthusiasts for leaving the European Union like to present it as a great and confident liberation. It is not. It is a retreat, not a liberation.

A more confident United Kingdom would be remaining within Europe, reforming it; not complaining about Europe and leaving it.

But that is not the view of the Brexiteers. Their apparent belief that Europe “gangs up” against the UK, and that the Commission “bullies” the UK, is not only absurd, it is embarrassing.

On one day, they boast that a “global” United Kingdom can successfully “go it alone” in the world; the next day, they complain that the UK is being “bullied” by mere officials.

There is a disconnect in logic here. They really must decide whether we are the United Kingdom or Little England.

And the European Union they classify as a bully is the same body that gave the UK a budget rebate; that agreed we need not join the Euro, nor sign up to Schengen, nor the Social Chapter.

That same European Union offered concessions to the UK that left us in a privileged position no other Government has yet enjoyed. Some bully, indeed!

Of course the European Union protects its own interests – as every country does – but they are activated, as we all are, by self-interest – and not by maliciously wishing to do damage to the UK.

Nor do they need to do so: the UK has shown we are able to inflict that on ourselves that without any help from the EU.

During the Referendum campaign in 2016, Tony Blair and I joined forces – not the most natural of partnerships you may have thought – to point out the importance of Northern Ireland, and the significance of the border, if the UK left the EU.

Following our statements, we were told, in effect, by the then Northern Ireland Secretary and the present Leader of the DUP, that we clearly didn’t know what we were talking about. Subsequent events suggest that we did.

Any border between North and South risks re-awakening memories of the worst of days; nearby graveyards bear witness to how bad were those days. No sensible person can wish to return to them.

A border would not just be a trade barrier. It would be a visible manifestation of “us” and “them”.

In the past, it not only divided communities, it divided minds; it created sides; it was the justification for conflict and murder; and its disappearance was one of the best days in the long history of Ireland.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, a new border is deferred while – for the time being – the UK remains in a Customs Union, until a technical solution is available to cope with trade formalities. But the problem is not over.

The much sought after technical solution may be a mirage and – like waiting for Godot – the wait may be forever. What then? Does the UK stay in a Customs Union for good, or will impatient politics seek to drag us out? No-one knows: we cannot be satisfied unless a permanent solution is agreed.

There are further dilemmas to face as the UK leaves the European Union, while Ireland remains a Member State.
In such circumstances, the two sides will no longer be able to bond over common causes in Europe. No longer can they speak for joint interests.

No longer will Ministers and officials meet daily in Brussels: the loss of this contact is unquantifiable – but profound.

Some say that familiarity breeds contempt. Our Anglo-Irish experience as partners in the European Union suggests our familiarity is more likely to breed trust, agreement and peace.

I recall being shocked, in 1991, when I learned from the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, that British and Irish Ministers only met rarely, and usually simply to disagree. We must never return to such a distant relationship.

I believe it is essential that, post-Brexit, forms of permanent Anglo-Irish bodies be established that guarantee regular and substantive meetings between our respective Prime Ministers, other Ministers, and senior officials. Inside or outside the European Union, we will always have much to discuss with our nearest neighbour.

Both sides can benefit from institutional engagement; from close ties; from established mechanisms to promote mutual interests; from delivery systems for sectoral issues. Such institutions should be built up and kept in good repair.

Nor is this just about trade. The relationship between our two countries can be good or bad; close or distant; but whatever it is will have an effect on community relations in Northern Ireland.

No-one should underplay the Anglo-Irish relationship. The UK exports more to Ireland than to China. Over 7,000 Northern Ireland companies trade across the border to the South.

Since 2000, UK exports to Ireland have more than doubled: Irish exports to the UK have risen by 80%. We are a huge market for each other.
We have been neighbours since the dawn of time. A huge Irish community is embedded in the UK. For nearly a hundred years, we have enjoyed a Common Travel Area that also offers reciprocal rights in health, education and employment – which, thankfully, will continue.

We have offered one another unique voting rights in the host country. Our cultural links are extensive. In sport, we field common North-South teams in rugby, cricket and hockey.

I could go on: our links far exceed politics and trade – important though they are. As a Briton, I say – Ireland is important to us and – in or out – of Europe that will not change.

Our duty – if we are to part company from the European Union – is to build on our relationship and not let it fragment.

We British owe that to Ireland – and we owe it to ourselves.

We can do this. We should do this. And we must do this.