Below is the text of Mr Major’s on the record briefing on Northern Ireland to journalists, held on Thursday 21st September 1995.
Let me firstly welcome you here this afternoon and I hope we can have a useful exchange.
Let me just say a few words at the outset about where we are in the process, how we led up to where we are, and I suppose most importantly, where we go from the present situation. And I have no doubt that you will have questions certainly about the third of those points and maybe the others as well.
Let me give you some personal thoughts about the pursuit of what we have come to know as peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. We are pretty close now to the second anniversary of the Joint Declaration. I don’t think many people would dissent from the view that we have travelled a good deal further on the road towards peace since that Joint Declaration than most people imagined at the time.
A lot of people didn’t believe that Albert Reynolds and I would reach agreement on it. When we did reach agreement on it they didn’t think it would move forward any further and thanks to the cooperation between the governments and others we have, and I think that is a considerable advance.
When I first came into Downing Street in 1990, I remember very vividly sitting here and listing in front of me a small number of priorities for the future. One of those priorities on the first occasion I came in here was Northern Ireland. At the time I think it is probably fair to say that wasn’t universally welcomed as a wise move. The history, as told by the cynical, was that the burden of history was too great, that age-
I didn’t agree with that. I didn’t agree with that then, I haven’t agreed with that on the good days we have had since then and I certainly haven’t agreed with it on the days when things have been difficult either. It was repugnant to me then that people were killing one another in Northern Ireland and beating one another up in Northern Ireland, and it was as repugnant to me in Northern Ireland as it would have been if it was happening locally in Westminster, in Surrey or in Durham or anywhere else. So I felt that it was worthwhile making a fresh and original effort to see how far we could get with a peace process.
If I ever needed any reinforcing in the belief that that was the right thing to do, I have to say that every single visit that I have made to Ulster over the last five years, and there have now been rather a lot of visits to Ulster, has reinforced me in the view that it was beyond any doubt the right thing to do.
It is quite striking if you go into Northern Ireland, and one has seen before the external image of the disputes in Northern Ireland, to actually then go into Northern Ireland in the streets and feel the atmosphere and meet the people, whether Catholic or Protestant. And what struck me very forcibly in those early visits was the clear willingness of the ordinary decent people of Northern Ireland, whatever their religion might be, to give their support to a peace effort that they believed was based on fairness, transparency and democracy. I have found that to be a consistent theme whenever I have gone there, whether I have spoken to special interest groups or people with no particular special interest other than being a citizen of Northern Ireland.
And when things have run into difficulties from time to time, you might perhaps be surprised by the weight of letters and messages that have come here from Northern Ireland from people who by and large in their own different ways have had the same simple straightforward message -
If anybody believed that we could move from where we were to a final agreement in Northern Ireland without setbacks, then they are an incurable romantic and a dreamer. It was never going to be that way, it hasn’t been that way and there may yet be setbacks as well as advances in the future.
One of those setbacks was just a few days ago when we postponed the summit that John Bruton and I were to have had at Chequers. But I think we need to put this in context. It was a setback, it was not a crisis. And those people, whenever there is a setback, who talk as though it were a crisis and the peace process itself were doomed are doing no good to the process and simply talking up their own negotiating position. Setback is one thing, crisis is another. What we have had is a setback and it is a setback I hope and believe that we will overcome.
Progress is going to be uneven. We are not suddenly going to wake up one morning, rub our eyes and find the whole thing is finally sealed and settled. That is not I believe the way it is remotely likely to be. It will evolve, this settlement, just as it has been evolving since the Downing Street declaration.
In the year after the Downing Street declaration we made pretty dramatic strides in a whole series of fronts. That will not always be the case, though I think that we will be able to carry this process a good deal forward.
At the moment, for the last few weeks, we have been in a bit of a pause period. But with patience, a degree of imagination and I think perhaps from time to time steady nerves as well, I think we will be able to move this process forward. If we are going to do that, as I believe we can, one absolutely indispensable element will be the continued close cooperation between London and Dublin. I have found it a very good working relationship, first with Albert Reynolds and subsequently with John Bruton. We haven’t always agreed on everything, we haven’t always approached things entirely from the same angle, but it has been a good working relationship and it remains so with John Bruton as the present Taoiseach.
Let me add just a couple of points about the future. Firstly, all-
I can’t force people to the conference table, I can’t coerce them to the conference table, I can encourage them to go to the conference table. The principle of consent, which I think we one stage was not universally accepted, is and must remain at the heart of the efforts of London and Dublin combined. And it applies to all-
Let me just say a word about decommissioning. Decommissioning is raised from time to time because it is an extremely important issue. What it is not is a British obsession, it is emphatically not a new condition cooked up by Perfidious Albion after the IRA ceasefire, and I think a cursory glance at your cuttings will confirm that that is so. If anybody doesn’t have the cuttings to hand I think it is quite probable that I might be able to find them for you. So it is not something that we have suddenly cooked up and I very much welcome the editorials in some of your newspapers recently which have emphatically made that point.
As far as decommissioning is concerned, well frankly I don’t care how it is done so long as it is credible and verifiable. I am not looking for surrenders, I am not looking for people coming out, throwing their weapons down at the feet of the British. That is not remotely what I have in mind. All I am concerned about is getting those arms out of commission because that is the key point in getting people to the all-
The principle of decommissioning comes smack out of the core of the Joint Declaration. And the plain truth is just simply this. The majority parties in Northern Ireland, representing the majority of the people in Northern Ireland, just will not come to the conference table until Sinn Fein / IRA have begun the process of actual decommissioning.
Now I can see no other way of generating the confidence necessary to draw the relevant parties into substantive talks. And neither is it just stubbornness by the UIster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists political parties, that is not the situation in the North. I daresay everyone present will have seen the poll in the Irish News recently, I think it was late August, which showed that 90% of Protestants, 33% of Catholics, believe that the decommissioning of IRA arms should be a precondition for the inclusion of Sinn Fein in all-
The Irish Times I think made that point very forcibly and I don’t generally quote newspapers editorials so perhaps it is a bad principle to start, it wouldn’t always work in my favour. But on this occasion the Irish Times set it out very clearly in April earlier this year.
So what next from the present situation? I continue to believe that the twin track approach -
We will continue to work also with the paramilitaries on both sides in exploratory dialogue, and with our colleagues in America with whom we have remained in the closest touch for a very long time. And of course with John Bruton whom I will be seeing tomorrow and on Saturday in Majorca. We mustn’t expect great announcements at the end of these discussions. John and I talk a great deal on the telephone, privately, in the sidelines of international meetings that we attend. Our points of contact are not just on the great setpiece summits, it is a regular and continuing dialogue, and frankly it is a dialogue on a scale that I don’t believe has existed between London and Dublin at any stage before, I don’t believe that has ever been anything like that. And my office and his office are in direct contact, I think it is fair to say if you add in the contacts between offices, on a daily basis and have been for a long time. So the contact is very close. There will be differences of approach but we try and work them out when we can and the working relationship with John Bruton is one of the reasons for encouragement that we will be able to carry this process forward.
I am sorry to burden you with that lengthy introduction but I thought it might put one of two things in content before we turn to your questions. I am happy to take your questions, we will see what you have to ask and where I think it is prudent for the process to answer the question, I will answer the question, if I don’t think it is prudent I will tell you it is not prudent and not answer the question.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
QUESTION (Irish Independent):
Prime Minister, you referred to your hope that the international commission might get of the ground. Earlier today Mr Ancram remarked that it was not envisaged that the commission would actually oversee the decommissioning of arms. To whom do you envisage that arms would actually be handed up to?
One of the things that the decommissioning commission will look at will be questions like that. The commission will look at the modalities, the mechanism for actually determining how arms are decommissioned. We can consider late further matters on the basis of their recommendation. We need to take this one step at a time. What I am conscious of, I do understand, perhaps better than people will sometimes give the British government credit for, some of the inhibitions and difficulties that face Sinn Fein as well. I do sit here and try and put myself forward into Mr Adams’s head to see the difficulties that he faces in order to determine what he is going to do. So I understand those difficulties. We are not seeking to pile embarrassment and difficulty upon Sinn Fein. What we are seeking to do is to find a way in which they are able to come forward and accept the decommissioning of arms. I think if we proposed how that was going to be done, that would be less likely to be accepted than if it were done by an independent commission. It was out of that thought that the concept of an independent commission, very probably chaired by a distinguished American, I think that is overwhelmingly likely and a name has been in circulation, I think that is the best way to proceed and I think that we will continue to go down that route.
QUESTION (Sunday Independent):
You said in your remarks that progress is going to be uneven, and I think we would all accept that. But winding up the debate in the British/Irish Interparliamentary Union yesterday afternoon, Michael Mates said, “We might even have to contemplate a short term return to violence to break the impasse, otherwise appeasement goes on”. Is that British government policy?
Let me say, I haven’t seen the transcript of what Michael said and long experience has taught me to be very careful about responding to things that I have not myself seen in black and white or heard. Subject to that, let me set out what the British government’s position is.
Of course no-
Do you then believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are bluffing when they say that they cannot contemplate handing over arms?
Well I find their position, I have my own judgement of what is bluff and what is negotiating tactics and what isn’t, but I don’t think it would be helpful to anyone if I was to unburden that thought to you. What I do say is that we do get conflicting noises from Sinn Fein publicly. It is very difficult on one hand to accept that their comments about them being dedicated to look for peace, this is a permanent peace, there is absolutely no doubt that they are determined to have peace, and all the other statements that have been made by Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness, and their view that that represents the view of their movement, and then to find them so resistant to beginning the decommissioning of arms. If they are permanently committed to a democratic future then they do not need an armed army at their back. I can understand that they do not want embarrassment or humiliation, as they would see it, of handing over their arms to the British. I do understand that, and that is why we moved down the route of an independent commission.
But if what they say about entering the democratic process fully and being permanently committed to peace is truly their position, then I think it is hard for any dispassionate observer to understand why they wouldn’t begin the surrender of their arms to an independent body. I won’t repeat the point about understanding the pride of their movement, I think I do, but that doesn’t stand up when they are not being asked to hand their arms over to the British but they are being asked to hand them over to an independent commission.
Michael Ancram, speaking to journalists this morning, seemed to be suggesting that both governments are now looking at the issue of decommissioning [indistinct].
I think almost however you answer that question you would be apt to give someone a misleading impression. There is no hidden depth in our examination of decommissioning, it is actually a very straightforward concept. We are interested in decommissioning because without decommissioning we cannot convene successfully the all-
One supplementary. Kevin McNamara yesterday said that he felt it would eventually come to a form of words.
Kevin McNamara has always taken that view. I don’t think that is the view of his party any more and I don’t think that is the view of any -
I have said to Sinn Fein: “the door is open to you as constitutional politicians; you can march through that door as a constitutional party properly recognised and treated in the same way as the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionists, the Alliance Party and the SDLP but if that is to be the case, then you must operate on the same basis as those other parties and you must not have an armed force at your back in the case of dispute!” and I do not think that that is anything other than a statement of plain common sense that most people in the north -
QUESTION (OTE News, Belfast):
On the one hand we have your Ministers in Northern Ireland saying that nobody wants a surrender and indeed if I am not mistaken consciously avoiding the use of the word “surrender” in any interviews or speeches and yet you say that you can’t understand why the IRA won’t begin the surrender of their arms to an independent body.
I live in Northern Ireland, for my part I think it highly unlikely that there will be any surrender. I think there could be some movement on the general principle of decommissioning but why has your Government stopped on the concept of arms actually being handed over, being surrendered?
Let me correct it. If I used “surrender”, let me make it clear what I mean.
I don’t care if they are not handed over providing they are destroyed, they are decommissioned. As I tried to indicate vividly, I don’t expect them to come out and throw their arms down at the feet of other people. That has never been my position. All I am concerned about is that the arms are removed from possible use, from circulation. I don’t mind, frankly, whether they decide that they would wish to hand their arms over to an independent body; I don’t mind whether their arms are destroyed in their presence by an independent body or by themselves in the presence of an independent body.
All that matters to me is that the arms are taken out of use. It isn’t a question of surrendering. If I used that it was an inadequate term and a slip of the tongue. What I am concerned about is to make sure that the arms are not available for use. I am not seeking to embarrass or humiliate Sinn Fein in that fashion, that wouldn’t be a productive or sensible thing to do. I just want the arms taken out of use.
And what the about the argument that you are not prepared to talk to Sinn Fein if they have 100% of their munitions? 95%?
We need to show that they are prepared for the principle of decommissioning. If they are prepared for the principle of decommissioning, then they will begin to decommission. Once they have done that, then I think it is reasonable to ask the other political parties to sit down with them and I think some of the other political parties have said that once they begin to do that there is no reason not to sit down with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein and the Loyalist paramilitaries, to begin to discuss how we move forward. That is what we are working for but I repeat pedantically the substantive point, there is no point in my pretending that they don’t need to move down that route of taking arms out because even if I were to take that position, which I am not, the other parties would not and there would be nobody sitting at the table at all and that is useless for the process.
Are you persuaded from your recent conversations with David Trimble that if Sinn Fein began the process of decommissioning as outlined by the British Government and particularly by Sir Patrick Mayhew in Washington, that if they did that and if they began the process of decommissioning their arms and explosives, that the Ulster Unionist Party would sit down to all-
I think, Emily, that is a question you must ask David Trimble. I can’t definitely answer for David Trimble or John Hume or any of the others.
That was central to your discussion with him presumably?
There are a whole range of things. I wouldn’t say that any individual thing was central to the discussion. We ran across the whole field in the hour and a half we had and we will have a good deal more meetings in the future to run across more so I don’t think I am prepared to put my words into Mr Trimble’s mouth or anybody else’s mouth. What I can say is once there is clear evidence that Sinn Fein are beginning to decommission, then the probability of all-
You don’t think that the official Unionists or indeed the DUP would put further road blocks in the way of all-
I hope nobody is going to put further road blocks. I understand the suspicions that have existed on both sides. There has been a long legacy of one political party having a mistrust of another political party, it operates on both sides of the divide.
In local government a few years ago we would have found it incredible that they would have worked together; they are working together in local government. What has been done as local government can be done at leader level in the parties in Northern Ireland as well and the sooner we are able to get in that position, the better it will be for Northern Ireland and by the “better it will be for Northern Ireland”, I don’t only mean that they will have a more secure reason for believing there will be no more violence though that certainly would be true but that I believe once you have got to that position it is actually going to unlock that avalanche of investment that I think is waiting abroad to come into the whole of Ireland once they are certain this process is going to be irreversible and the difference that is going to make to the living standards of people north and south is going to very remarkable, and one great gain we have had in the last year is that people have seen in the last year the speed with which ordinary circumstances can change as a result of the ceasefire. It is as nothing in my judgement to what will happen when there is a universal conviction that that ceasefire is going to become a permanent end to violence.
QUESTION (John Cooney, Dublin Correspondent of the Glasgow Herald):
In your ongoing talks with Mr Bruton, do you believe that both of you can convince Sinn Fein, the IRA, of the principle of decommissioning or do you think you will need the pressure from Washington and the Clinton Administration to effect that end?
Secondly, just to clarify a point earlier, when you said you are having greater cooperation and contact with Dublin, is your relationship with John Bruton now more intimate than it was with Albert Reynolds?
I am not quite sure of the way you expressed the question! We had a very close political relationship and that was true with Albert and it was true with John Bruton as well. To give you a very practical illustration, I was in very regular contact with Albert Reynolds as well. To be brutally honest, you cannot conduct this sort of exercise at arms length. You can’t do it through interlocutors; there is a certain amount that can be done but at the end of the day you are going to have to do a certain amount of it yourself so I had very regular contact with Albert Reynolds on the telephone and directly. When Albert first came here, we agreed that we would institute the proposition of six-
We meet regularly in any event at what seems to be an interminable number of European Union meetings and beyond that we have very close telephone contact so it has been very close in both instances, it really has. With Albert we had to sit down and negotiate bits of the Joint Declaration together, to call it a haggle I think would not be an unfair description and similarly with John Bruton with parts of the framework document. I don’t want to give you the impression we wrote all of it ourselves sitting in conclave just the two of us waiting for white smoke to come out. A huge amount of work of course was done by many other people.
Do you think it will require American intervention to get Sinn Fein to accept the principle of decommissioning?
I don’t know the answer to that. There is no doubt that President Clinton is clear about the need for decommissioning, he has said so repeatedly. I think the Americans have made that point directly to Sinn Fein, they have said so publicly on a number of occasions as has John Bruton, as have an awful lot of other people, as has Dick Spring and many others.
QUESTION (Irish Times):
On the three-
Yes, that is still the position.
Can I take you one step back to Emily O’Reilly’s question, if Sinn Fein accept the commission...
Back to or back from?
Back one step beyond where she... If Sinn Fein accept the commission and the terms are agreed, are you in a position to guarantee that the Unionists would at least participate in the exploratory bilateral and trilateral talks?
One of the misconceptions there has always been in Sinn Fein’s mind and in many other people’s minds is that the British Government can guarantee the particular position of the Ulster Unionist and the Democratic Unionists parties and the Alliance parties and others; that has never been the position.
I cannot guarantee that they are going to respond. I can encourage them to enter into the talks, I can point out the advantage of entering into the talks and all these things but it just is not the case, as Sinn Fein so often think, that all I have to do is to say to the Unionists in Northern Ireland: “I would like you to do this!” they would do it. That isn’t the case so I am not in the position of being able to offer guarantees any more than John Bruton can offer me guarantees about the way Sinn Fein or the IRA behave. That isn’t the case.
What I am seeking is to bring both sides together, to have the talks bilateral, trilateral, more if they wish it on the one hand and to have the decommissioning commission operate. We just talked about Sinn Fein but of course they would be looking at the surrender of arms from the Protestant paramilitaries as well so I am not in a position to give guarantees, I am not the leader of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. I will use my best auspices to persuade them to do so.
Prime Minister, what do you make of the change in the Unionist leadership, the Unionists have a new leader? Do you think that is a good sign for the future, do you think that Mr Trimble is somebody who can come and sit round the table and do a deal eventually?
Any Unionist leader is going to have to carry the Unionist parties with him. Mr Trimble has been duly elected by the Unionist parties; he is therefore in a good position if he reaches an agreement, to carry his party with him in that agreement. I have to persuade him if I can that there is an agreement that it is possible to do and I will endeavour to do that. If I am able to persuade him, then I think that he will be able to bring his parties with him. He is an intelligent and an able man. Much of what I read about David Trimble in the last few weeks in the paper I don’t entirely recognise from the David Trimble I know in the House of Commons. He is a very shrewd and forthright politician. I don’t mind dealing with shrewd and forthright politicians, it is part of the way of life in Downing Street!
Prime Minister, if it is so difficult to form the conditions to allow people to get around the table, is it not going to be impossible to form the conditions for any agreement?
If I may say so without wishing to produce a smart-
The answer to your question is yes, I believe we can. If I did not believe that we could carry this process from beginning to end, then I would not have embarked upon this process in the beginning. It has not always been easy, it has not always been friction-
Given that the answer is yes, have you any vision of what that settlement could be or is that a mystery?
No, it isn’t a mystery, but if this settlement is going to stick it is not a settlement that is going to come out of the mouth of the British Prime Minister. It has got to be a settlement that is going to come out after discussion with the political parties. Of course I can see where I think they will end, but I think we must have their discussions, we have their inputs, we must consider that, we must see what they have to produce. At the end of the day it is going to be their settlement approved by the people in Northern Ireland.
I don’t know. I don’t wish to put a time-
You have been talking a lot about how good the relationship is between the two governments. At a certain point in the week when the summit was cancelled it seemed anything but that; there was a lot of misunderstanding and certainly the spin that came from the British officials and the British media was that John Bruton is running scared of Sinn Fein and that it was the IRA who had effectively vetoed the summit. Would that have been your view of what happened given the British Government seemed determined [indistinct].
I read a lot of that in the press, certainly in the Irish press as well if I may say so. I am not even sure, Emily, that you didn’t write it! [Laughter]. There you are, you see the interest I take in your writing!
I think John Bruton is a brave and forthright politician. I like doing business with him and I am not going to say anything that going to lead you to believe anything to the contrary.
QUESTION (Bernard Persil, Irish Independent):
Are you confident that you can deliver all of your party with this settlement because as you are aware a lot of people haven’t really come this far before, they are quite nervous about that it may entail, there is an awful lot of misrepresentation of positions not least within your own party, not least amongst some of your own backbenchers. Will that be a particular obstacle?
If I may fall back on parliamentary tradition, I refer you to the answer I gave to the gentleman here just a moment or so ago! [Laughter]. If I can move it forward satisfactorily, I think I will be able to carry on.
Sir Patrick, in his speech last night, said that if the international commission brought forward proposals for an alternative approach on decommissioning the Government would look at those proposals and judge them by their merits. Could that be taken to mean that if the commission proposed that you scrap Part 3 of the Washington test that you would do so?
I think Sir Patrick said “on their merits” and we will look at things on their merits.
I emphasise again that this “Washington 3” condition is not a condition invented by the Government after the ceasefire. I just emphasise that point again. It is a statement of the political reality and one thing we cannot do in these negotiations is avoid political reality and I think Patrick was emphasising that point again yesterday.
I think unless there is anything terribly fresh and original or anyone is burning with something.....
Can I ask you....
Sir Patrick has also said that he is very worried and very conscious of the fact that the IRA allegedly are recruiting and restructuring all the time. Presumably, that would give you pause for thought and would not be too hopeful?
Of course we are concerned about the IRA’s activities. We are concerned about the punishment beatings that go on. One thing that the ceasefire has done is draw the veil up so that people have actually looked at the punishment beatings that have gone on as well and they have continued during this period and of course we are concerned about activities like that, of course we are.
I think we had better call a halt. Thank you very much for coming. I hope as events proceed that we have the opportunity of another meeting discuss further progress. I will look forward to that.