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 Henry Grattan Lecture – 25 May 2023

Sir John Major’s speech made at the Henry Grattan Lecture held at the Irish Embassy on 24 May 2023.

It’s a great privilege to be here, and to have been invited to deliver this Lecture.

I first became aware of Henry Grattan in the early 1990s when I was reading myself into the history of Ireland ‒ and particularly her relationship with England.

For me, this was essential, to better understand the generations of hurt and grievance that lay in history as a backcloth to the violence of The Troubles.

I soon learned that many of the heroes of Irish history earned their fame fighting for Irish interests ‒ most often in rebellion against the British.

Rebellions were repetitive over hundreds of years.  The causes of them were bitter and the aftermath long-lasting.  

History built scars into the relationship between England and Ireland ‒ and between Protestant and Catholic ‒ that were not easy to eliminate.

Henry Grattan enters into this epic story in the late 18th Century.  

Under the Declaratory Act of 1719, legislative independence for the Irish Parliament needed the assent of the British Parliament ‒ which was not given.  

Grattan’s great contribution was ‒ against all expectations ‒ to obtain the repeal of this prohibition.

One of the eternal truths of politics is that it can be contradictory, complex and confusing:  the simplicities of what we now call “Populism” betrays reality – as well as the nature of human behaviour.

Grattan was not a man of detail, but he was a formidable orator:  a gift – in my experience – that is innately Irish.  And Grattan used this gift not to threaten, but to persuade, with a subtlety that was hard to deny.

Grattan argued for Ireland to receive similar concessions to those granted to American colonists after the War of Independence.  As he put it:  

“Can England cede with dignity?  I suspect she can;  for if she has consented to repeal all the laws respecting America, among which the Declaratory Act is one, she can with majesty repeal the Declaratory Act against Ireland.”

Tellingly, he went on in a way that was both cunning and wise:

“Ireland has declared her resolution to stand and fall with the British nation, and has stated her own rights by appealing not to your fears but your magnanimity.”

It was an approach themed to appeal, and was accepted by Lord Rockingham during his brief second Administration.  

It was that very approach:  of insight, of political genius, which earned Grattan a place in history.

Most particularly, for the purposes of this evening, it illustrates a method of reaching across a deep divide, to obtain an outcome few believed possible.

* * * * *

I have been asked to speak about the history, legacy and future of Northern Ireland.  

However, since – at least in part – that will depend on the future policy of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, I will stray a little beyond those narrow confines.

Let me turn first to my own experience of the Peace Process.  The Good Friday Agreement is now in being, but the full dividends of peace are still a work in progress.  

Legislation can change the law, but it takes time to build trust and heal emotions.

I won’t reiterate all the twists and turns of the Joint Declaration (1993) and the Framework Agreement (1995) ‒ I have done that before.  

This evening I will try to open my mind, and set out how events seemed – from my own perspective – as they unfolded.

The “Troubles” began ‒ or, more accurately, were reignited ‒ in the late 1960s. On the day I became Prime Minister, they had plagued life in Northern Ireland for over twenty years.  

Palliatives had been tried ‒ and were still being tried ‒ but none had worked.  The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 had imploded.  

Several things seemed obvious to me.  No-one was going to “win” this conflict.  

The British Government would neither give in to force, nor change the status of Northern Ireland – except at the express wish of the people of Northern Ireland.

The IRA would not ‒ and, probably, could not ‒ give up their struggle for a united Ireland.  

Nor, having embarked upon an armed struggle, was it easy for them to revert to a purely political struggle ‒ a Grattan struggle, if you wish – using blandishments and logic in place of guns and bombs.  

Indeed, the IRA could not do this for as long as they were outside the political mainstream.

I believed that, if violence was to be brought to an end, it would only be done by agreement – and any such agreement would have to embrace the wholly different ambitions of the Unionist and Nationalist communities.

On a more hopeful note there were allies who could help secure agreement ‒ notably the churches, a wide swathe of public opinion, and brave individuals who had been arguing for peace over many years.

For me, an essential prerequisite seemed to be a close partnership between Westminster and Dublin, and this fell easily into place.

Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach in 1990, and he readily agreed to regular meetings between Taoiseach and Prime Minister to cover all Anglo-Irish issues.  

I was then fortunate to have successive partnerships with Albert Reynolds and John Bruton.  Their ambitions for an end to violence mirrored mine.  

Moreover, our joint membership of the European Union was an easy opportunity for wholly informal and private discussions.

And there were other options in play.

In 1990, Peter Brooke had opened an intelligence channel to carry messages to and from the IRA.  

There was also the Hume-Adams dialogue that – although anathema to the Unionists – was an important part of the solution.  

Hume-Adams revealed the nationalist appetite for peace.  It was their talks that first proposed a Joint Anglo-Irish Declaration as a route to peace.  And, if often unintentionally, it revealed IRA thinking.

On the downside, Unionist hostility to the talks meant that proposals with a Hume-Adams label were treated with the utmost suspicion, and rejected by them almost without consideration.

The whole route to peace resembled a jigsaw with missing pieces.  

One further impediment was that all the principal actors had supporters to placate ‒ many of whom were instinctively suspicious of any move towards consensus.  Their fear was betrayal.

The British Parliament had strong Unionist supporters in ‒ and beyond ‒ the Cabinet who feared that entering into a Peace Process was bound to end badly.  

The Irish Government had the IRA watching them like hawks.  

The IRA leadership had to convince their own “volunteers” they weren’t weakening or being tricked – either by one or both of the two Governments.  

The Unionist Parties had suspicious minds within their Party ranks, and among their membership.

All of this meant that everyone was having to watch their backs ‒ and convince their supporters of the actions they took.  This inevitably slowed progress – as mistrust always will.  

Nonetheless, progress was made.

The Joint Declaration, in December 1993, was a set of agreed principles.  The first, tentative, step towards peace.  

But, 70 years after partition – and a quarter of a century of bombs, guns, punishment beatings and violence – it was an agreement that both the UK and Ireland could welcome.

In a thousand years of history, such moments of unity were rare and left me confident that ‒ in due time ‒ an agreement could be fashioned that would last.  

That said, I was less confident that it would be completed during my time in Government ‒ and so it was to prove.

The Joint Declaration set out some essential building blocks to the Good Friday Agreement.

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

The Nationalists were promised their interests would be protected.

And – crucially – paramilitaries were offered a route into the political mainstream.  

Everyone was given a persuasive case to put to dissenters among their supporters.

As they did so, work was well underway on what a final settlement might look like.  The Joint Framework Documents ‒ in which John Bruton had a huge input ‒ were in three parts.

Strand One set out a possible structure for internal Government in Northern Ireland which was of course, the sole responsibility of London and Belfast.  It proposed a new elected Executive and Assembly.

Strand Two was concerned with relations between Belfast and Dublin, and foreshadowed cross border bodies.  

Strand Three was concerned with relations between the UK and the Republic.  

All three Strands were seen as a single entity – with nothing agreed until everything was agreed.  

Without that caveat, we might not have been able to move forward.

John Bruton and I put these proposals out for public consultation:  they did not have an easy birth.  

During the negotiation ‒ which had been extremely hard pounding for Officials and politicians alike ‒ there had been leaks, both accurate and inaccurate, protests, near rebellions in the House of Commons, and sharp concern in Ireland.

Unionists – as a matter of course – were suspicious, and uncertain what these constitutional proposals might imply:  was this a short cut to a united Ireland?

Republican Bishops were unhappy.  

Presbyterians were critical of proposals that were “too green” for their taste but, as the proposals settled and were studied, many of these fears fell away.  

A document produced by Paddy Mayhew ‒ a true hero of the Process – together with innumerable meetings to re-assure worried groups, finally produced broad agreement.

It seemed for a while that the “Frameworks” might fail but, in the end, they did not and – re-assembled – were to become a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ironically, this year of high concern – and many angry words ‒ was also the first year in a quarter of a century in which there were no terrorists killings.  Violence, yes.  But killings, no.  

Painstakingly, progress was being made – step by step.  

And we finally began to see a realistic hope for a better future.

At this point I should make something clear.  The progress made was not simply due to the work of two governments and a handful of politicians.  

The Peace Process profited from the spirit of a nation tired of old ills, who demanded something better.  

It was the construct of many hands.  Talented and dedicated Officials in London, Dublin and Belfast ‒ too many to mention by name – each made an enormous and selfless contribution.

Church Leaders carried reassurances to worried groups.  The public support for peace was overwhelming and constant:  in this, the Peace Women of Northern Ireland are one especial memory for me.

Individual politicians on both the Nationalist and Unionist sides made significant contributions:  John Hume throughout the Process and, whilst he was Leader of the Ulster Unionists, Jim Molyneaux, too.  

Jim’s successor, David Trimble ‒ once a leading opponent – became a courageous advocate.  

All of these ‒ and so many more ‒ had a role to play.

There is one key contributor I have not yet mentioned ‒ the leadership of the IRA.  

Their years of violence had only hardened the heart of successive Westminster governments ‒ it was folly for the IRA to believe they could bomb their way to a settlement.

When I first learned of the Hume-Adams talks I began to think that the Provisionals had realised that mis-judgement, and did not wish to condemn yet another generation to living through mayhem.

But, whether I was right or wrong about the IRA’s motive, they did seem to be looking for a political settlement and – if that was indeed so – it was a difficult step for their leadership to take.  

Many in their ranks would not have approved.

That was, I began to believe, why – even as the Peace Process moved forward – the IRA returned to repeated violence.  It was to persuade their volunteers that they were not weakening in their armed resolve.  

As the atrocities mounted ‒ Warrington, Shankill, Greysteel, Canary Wharf ‒ it was often uncomfortable to retain support for the Peace Process – both on a political and personal level.  

But one reality sustained it:  if it failed, yet more people would be killed or maimed.

It soon became apparent that ancient enmity – not least the hunger strikes – made it unlikely the IRA would conclude the peace with a Conservative Government.

But we were lucky.  From the moment in the early 1990s when I first briefed John Smith of my hopes, the Labour Party was wholly supportive.  

First under John, then ‒ in an interregnum ‒ under Margaret Beckett, before Tony Blair became Leader.  

This was also true of the Liberal-Democrats.  

The opposition – within Government and Parliament – came from impassioned supporters of the Union, who feared it would be sacrificed to gain an agreement.

After Labour’s election victory in 1997, Tony Blair, and his team carried the Peace Process forward at speed, and with great success.  

There were delicate issues to resolve:  the decommissioning of weapons and the treatment of IRA prisoners being foremost among them.  

But they handled them all with skill and tenacity, and the Good Friday Agreement was a triumph.

Twenty five years on, life in Northern Ireland is immeasurably better.  

No longer is death and destruction a regular feature of the news.  

Relations between North and South has been transformed ‒ although more can and, I hope, will be done.  

Britain and Ireland are each other’s closest neighbours.  Over the centuries, where there should have been harmony, there has been antagonism.  

Now, that is changing.  

Apart from the turmoil of the Brexit years, when relations were disturbed, London and Dublin have become closer, perhaps, than at any time in our long joint history.  

I hope we have the good judgement to build on that.

At some time, the British and Irish Governments may wish to review the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and, perhaps, make some tweaks ‒ but not, I think, very many:  the Act has stood up well over a long infancy.  

But it might be prudent to amend the legislation to protect the Executive and Assembly from being collapsed if one Party fails to take up its responsibilities.

If the Leaders of the two main Parties do not accept their Ministerial role, the Executive cannot be formed, and the elected Assembly cannot meet.

Northern Ireland cannot then be governed by its elected Government, and democracy falls away.

This interregnum is harmful to Northern Ireland, and needs to come to an end.

Other amendments may be needed to ensure the cross-border bodies act as originally intended, or to take account of the rising third party vote.

In our world of autocrats, of divisions, of hardships, of many man-made evils, Ireland has fashioned a peace to last.

To maintain that peace, there should be no tolerance of old grudges being used as a crutch for new bigotry.  There is no place for them if we are to build the future for which we all wish.  

We need to focus ‒ not on the Ireland that was ‒ or even the Ireland that is ‒ but on the Ireland that can be.

Northern Ireland, has changed for the better ‒ and, I hope, for good.

Time is healing.  The killing has stopped.  The old feuds and hatreds are easing – even though in some minds, they might linger on.

In the decade after the Good Friday Agreement, the potential for growth was proven – until the financial crisis, Covid and the war in Ukraine erected new barriers to prosperity.

But – if Northern Ireland can continue to lay aside its quarrelsome past ‒ there is no reason why prosperity should not return … and soar.  

Belfast is ranked only behind London as a UK Tech City, and has a growing reputation for green energy projects.

There is a successful services sector to build on, and growth opportunities in cyber, Artificial Intelligence, life and health sciences, and the creative industries.

All of this can thrive alongside traditional skills in aerospace, engineering, defence and manufacturing.

As old grievances and lack of trust are put aside, the scope is there to capture and embrace prosperity.  

If the will is there, the results will follow.

The Republic is also perhaps, better placed than at any time in her history.  She is a respected country, firmly settled within the European Union.

She has a reputation as a peacemaker that carries far and wide.  She is a close friend ‒ even protégé ‒ of the United States and, after much turmoil, has an increasingly close relationship with the United Kingdom.  

Within the international community, she inspires friendship and co-operation.  She offends no-one and is welcomed by almost everyone.  

Of course there are problems – most obviously in housing – but her economy is healthy.  So are her finances.  And her taxes are buoyant.

It is an enviable position.

For me, it will be of eternal regret that I was unable to bring the Peace Process to a conclusion.  BUT – and it is a BIG but – it is far more important that the lives of the people of Ireland – North and South – have been transformed over the past 30 years.  

Throughout her long history, Ireland’s children emigrated to build a better life for themselves.  

Looking into the future, they may still choose to do that – but, I believe – will no longer need to do so.  

A better life – for Ireland North and South – is there to be found.

And nothing could possibly bring me – or, I suspect, the shadow of Henry Grattan – greater or more eternal happiness than that.