The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Comments to Alastair Campbell – 26 October 2019

Below are the comments made by Sir John Major in an interview with Alastair Campbell in preparation for a video shown at the People’s Vote rally. The comments were published by the New European on 26 October 2019.

When I became prime minister, the people of Northern Ireland found themselves living with bombings, shootings, murders, beatings, kneecappings, month after month. It was a way of life that would have been utterly intolerable in any other part of the United Kingdom. Murder was so routine that it was no longer headline news.

Violence also came to the British mainland. In London, the City, Oxford Street, Knightsbridge were bombed. So was the House of Commons, and 10 Downing Street. Bombings in Manchester, Birmingham, Guildford and Warrington, where two little boys were murdered while buying cards for Mothering Sunday. For those who never lived through those times, it must be almost impossible to imagine. For those of us who did, it’s still difficult to comprehend.

Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and I both shared a view that it was intolerable, that the 30 years of violence that killed 3,000 people simply could not be permitted to continue. We decided to look for common ground. We were working against a backdrop of tremendous support against the men and women of violence from whichever community they came. There was a genuine sense of people power and it grew.

Bit by bit, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process transformed the lives of all those on the island of Ireland, north and south. Violence ended, friendships were nurture, old hatreds faded. The relationship between London, Belfast and Dublin became better than at any time in history. A key part of this transformation was our mutual membership of the European Union. It broke down borders across Ireland. It increased and simplified trade. It brought north and south closer together. And London and Dublin became close allies, not least around the European table. Brexit will significantly weaken those links and damage the economies of both our countries.

But the Good Friday agreement was about far more than trade or jobs or profits. It replaced violence with peace. That peace is still fragile. It cannot and must not be a mere afterthought. My fear and that of many others is that Brexit may put that peace at risk. Having been so hard won, and it is to Tony Blair’s eternal credit that it was, it must surely never be allowed to be lost. It is worth remembering that no one under the age of 20 would have any memory of the violence and deaths that once engulfed their neighbourhoods. I hope and pray they never do. It would be the most recklessly irresponsible act to risk losing what took so long to achieve. And a gamble that no British government should ever take, whatever political policy they wish to pursue.

I totally supported Tony Blair in what he did and for the referendum we liaised. A fool could have seen the difficulties there was going to be with a border between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which would be on the southern end of Northern Ireland. We remembered that when the violence began. It began with the murder of customs officers at a customs border. We went to Ireland together to warn of the difficulties there would be. And I’m sad to say that many of the people in Northern Ireland just shrugged their shoulders and said, what did they know of Ireland? And that, I’m afraid, was also true of the of the then British cabinet. I was disappointed that people could not see the dangers that would be likely to arise.

I am unsurprised at the end that the Democratic Unionists appear not to be able to support the agreement that has been reached. It was rejected by precisely the people who are now promoting this particular agreement. But I do think there is going to be a real difficulty in Northern Ireland being treated differently. I think there are many reasons for a confirmatory referendum and making sure that you have the support of the people in Northern Ireland is certainly one of them.

A border down the Irish Sea splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. And that, of course, always plays on the inherent fears of Northern Ireland, that they’re being ignored, that they’re being maltreated. And those fears are very real. There is now not a shred of doubt in my mind that the integrity of the United Kingdom, both in terms of Scotland and in terms of Northern Ireland, is at greater threat. Leaving Europe, carrying Brexit through, will raise strains we know of and strains we haven’t yet thought of. That may well end up with dividing a United Kingdom that has been together for a very long time. It is a thoroughly bad idea.