The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Opening Statement to Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons – 7 February 2023

The opening statement made by Sir John Major to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on 7 February 2023.


I think it might be helpful if I spend a few minutes introducing the subject. I will do so only sketchily, and fill in more detail in answer to your questions.

By the early ‘90s, life in Northern Ireland had not been free of terror for 25 years and – to me – violence was as unacceptable there as it would have been anywhere else in the UK.

I spent a long time reading myself into the problem and its history. I did so to better understand the fears and ambitions of the opposing factions.

Throughout the years ahead, my door was open to politicians of mainstream Parties, as well as the Churches and Community bodies. Later, I had innumerable meetings with Albert Reynolds and John Bruton ‒ often informal and private.

As to background, relations between London and Dublin were only spasmodic. Unionist and Nationalist opinion was far apart.

Bombing, killings, paramilitary beatings, the murder of soldiers by Provisionals, were a part of everyday life in Northern Ireland – as was violent retaliation by Loyalist paramilitaries.

Even when the Peace Process gained traction there were innumerable setbacks and perpetual suspicion. Distrust was rife. The political parties would talk to the UK Government, but not to one another.

Throughout the Process violence re-occurred, as the IRA were determined to show their volunteers they were not weakening, even as progress was made.

The Process was often slowed by Unionist suspicion of the process inflamed by partial “leaks” and unreal “fears”. John Bruton’s Government faced similar problems with Provisional opinion.

All this was a perpetual frustration.

In 1990, Peter Brooke [S/S NI] had opened an intelligence channel to receive messages from the Provisional IRA, and also made the important statement that the British government had “no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland”.

One relationship was already in play: it was the Hume-Adams dialogue which had begun in 1988. This was in some ways helpful, but in others less so.

In early 1993, we received a “back channel” message from the Provisionals. It was dramatic:

“The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close. We wish to have an unannounced ceasefire in order to hold a dialogue leading to peace.”

“We cannot announce such a move as it will lead to confusion to the volunteers, because the press will misinterpret it as surrender.”

“We cannot meet the Secretary of State’s public renunciation of violence, but it would be given privately as long as we were sure we were not being tricked.”

We asked ourselves, was this genuine or a trick?

If genuine, and we ignored it, we would have lost a chance of peace.

We decided to respond positively. In March 1993:

– we agreed to an exploratory dialogue;

– with no pre-determined outcome; and emphasised that

– the result could be a united Ireland, but only on basis of consent by the people of Northern Ireland.

Despite this, violence continued. On the very day our reply was delivered two small boys were killed in Warrington. That atrocity nearly brought the Peace Process to a halt.

Bombs at Bishopsgate and an explosion in Belfast soon followed.

My judgement was that the IRA believed that continuing violence would reassure their members there was no weakness on the Provisional side. I was aware that the IRA Leaders had backbenchers more lethal than mine.

On 23 October 1993, 10 people were killed in Shankill Road by the Provisionals. A week later, the Loyalists retaliated, by killing 8 and wounding 19 in Greysteel.

Such outrages caused deep public revulsion. We then received a further message. It claimed the British Government couldn’t solve the problems talking only with Dublin, and asked when would we open dialogue with the IRA “in the event of a total end to hostilities?”.

In reply we stressed there could be no secret agreement with them. There could be dialogue, but only after a permanent end to violence.

If that were obtained we would open dialogue “within one week of Parliament’s return” in January 1994.

The idea of a Joint Declaration ‒ a good one ‒ sprang from the Hume-Adams talks.

We liked the principle of a Joint Declaration. It could offer a way forward for Unionists, Nationalists and Paramilitaries.

We looked at text after text: from Hume-Adams; from Albert Reynolds ‒ but by October 1993 progress was stuck. Ironically, public disgust at the violence in Shankill and Greysteel moved us forward.

We developed a text with Dublin ‒ and the chance of an agreement rose.

We met at Dublin Castle on 3 December 1993. Albert and I had a fierce row over our back channel and their “leaks”.

We then made progress on the Draft. If we had failed, the Peace Process might have become untenable. On 14 December, we agreed the final text.

The next day, Albert came to London and we announced the agreed Joint Declaration. At last, we had the basis of an agreement that received overwhelming support.

It was a basis only: a set of agreed principles. A beginning. But, after 70 years of partition, and 24 years of bloodshed, it was an agreement both the UK and Ireland could accept.

From then, I was confident a deal could be done.

The Unionists were reassured a united Ireland would only come about with their consent.

Nationalists were promised their interests would be protected.

The paramilitaries were offered a route into political life. These were essential preliminaries to the Good Friday Agreement.

In August 1994, the IRA announced a ceasefire. I made clear publicly that if it were irreversible we would respond positively.

To encourage movement towards a settlement I:

(i) committed the Government to a referendum on the eventual outcome of constitutional talks;

(ii) lifted the ban on broadcasting the voices of spokesmen for the Provisionals;

(iii) relaxed some security measures.

On 13 October 1994, the Loyalist paramilitaries also halted violence, and hopes rose that we might move into a permanent ceasefire. I announced a new package of measures on the “working assumption” the ceasefire would hold.

I also promised talks with paramilitaries on both sides to include “how illegal weapons and explosives could be removed from life in Northern Ireland”. I promised, also, we would convene an Investment Conference to inject money into the North.

Throughout all this, the Unionists remained nervous, always fearful there could be a “sell-out”.

At this point, in December 1994, Albert Reynolds resigned as Taoiseach ‒ which was a great disappointment to me ‒ personally and politically.

I was lucky that John Bruton succeeded Albert. He, like Albert, was keen to move forward.

1994 ended positively. British officials met Sinn Fein (for the first time in 25 years) and also met the Loyalists. The Investment Conference I promised met in Belfast (Europa Hotel).

Officials from the NIO and their counterparts in Dublin were working on what became the “Framework Documents”.

Strand One ‒ the internal government of Northern Ireland ‒ proposed a new Executive and Assembly (which was, of course, the sole responsibility of London and Belfast).

Strand Two covered relations between Belfast and Dublin; while Strand Three covered relations between the UK and the Republic.

All three strands needed agreement. “Nothing is agreed until all is agreed” remained our mantra.

In February 1995, John Bruton and I reached agreement, and launched the Joint Framework Documents in Belfast. I would like to pay tribute to John for his skilled and constructive commitment to getting us over the line.

At first the Unionists would not accept the Joint Framework Documents but, reassembled, they became the basis for the Good Friday Agreement.

1995 was the first year in a quarter of a century without any terrorist killings in Northern Ireland ‒ although there was occasional violence.

After February 1995, action focused on decommissioning weapons. A “Working Group” had been set up in October 1994. (Chilcot and Dalton).

It was a tortuous process of one step forward ‒ and then stalemate.

I will spare you the litany of proposals, rejections, quarrels, grandstanding ‒ as the Provisionals refused to budge.

John Bruton and I proposed an International Commission with Senator George Mitchell as its Chairman. The Provisionals tried to block it. Rows were sufficiently serious to cause an Anglo-Irish Summit to be postponed due to threats of violence.

Paddy Mayhew had been developing a “twin-track” initiative of decommissioning and political progress. It was rejected. We re-drafted it as a “Building Blocks” Paper.

In November, John Bruton and I agreed the “twin-track” initiative, and to establish the decommissioning body.

President Clinton arrived in London and I briefed him. He was shocked that ‒ since the 1994 ceasefire ‒ the IRA had carried out 148 “punishment” beatings, and the Loyalists, 75. In London, Belfast and Dublin, he rammed home the peace message. This was timely and immensely helpful.

By early 1996, it became clear the Provisionals were waiting for a General Election, with polls indicating the probability of a Labour Government.

The IRA exploded bombs in Canary Wharf killing two people and injuring over 100. Naturally, they blamed the British Government.

Despite this setback, the UK and Irish governments agreed Rules for All-Party Talks and confirmed these could begin in June, with elections to the negotiating body in May.

The elections took place – heralded by the IRA exploding a massive bomb in Manchester days after All-Party Talks began.

This bomb convinced me we would not reach a settlement before the next election.

It was clear that a new Government would need to pick up the talks. I was confident Tony Blair and Labour would carry it forward.

Labour did not bear the scars of 18 years of dispute with the IRA, and I believed they would be able to build on the Joint Declaration, the Framework Document, and the preparatory work on decommissioning weapons.

To their great credit ‒ they did.