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Remarks by the Tánaiste introducing the Third Iveagh House Commemorative Lecture by Sir John Major

Remarks by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Introducing the Third Iveagh House Commemorative Lecture by the Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH 

11th December 2013


Introductory Remarks

You are welcome to Iveagh House and to this third in a series of commemorative lectures. Each recalls a significant event in our history, not as an end in itself but as a starting point for reflection on the future. Last year, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson considered on the life of Edward Carson, born in Dublin a short distance from here, and reflected on Irish unionism and its place in our political life today.

Recently, the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, recalled the visit of President John F Kennedy fifty years ago and reflected on Irish American relations. This evening, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the landmark Declaration signed at Downing Street on 15th December 1993, we are honored that Sir John Major has agreed to reflect on relations between Britain and Ireland. I want also to extend a warm welcome to Dame Norma Major.


Fiche Bliain ag Fás

Next year we mark the centenary of events which shaped our world. Over 200,000 Irishmen served in British uniform during the First World War and around 50,000 died.  Thousands of Irish women served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the front line.

There will be other centenaries too.  Quieter ones.

In February 1914 a boy was born to a couple on the Great Blasket Island off the Kerry coast.  His father made a living fishing for lobster off Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin.  His name was Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and in time he would come to write a great memoir of a passing way of life.  He called it “Fiche bliain ag fás”: Twenty years a growing.

Ó Súilleabháin’s phrase might also describe this lecture.

The relationship between Britain and Ireland has grown steadily for the past twenty years, deepening and expanding.

The visit by Queen Elizabeth two years ago opened a new chapter in our relations and the return visit by President Higgins in a few months time will add to this, bringing fresh perspectives and developing new themes. 


New Challenges

Sir John Major joins us at a time of enormous challenge and opportunity for both our countries.

In the week when Ireland prepares to exit the EU IMF program, it is timely to recall how closely integrated our two economies are. Trade between Britain and Ireland supports 400,000 jobs.  Economic partnership is not an option but a necessity.

Old relationships are being debated and reviewed: Scotland's place in the United Kingdom; Britain's place in Europe.

Richard Haass has arrived in Northern Ireland to help the Executive find answers to divisive issues around flags, parades and the legacy of the past.

If there were simple answers, we would have found them long ago. But old insights can give good guidance.

Thirty years ago, John Hume addressed the opening session of the New Ireland Forum at Dublin Castle.

He pointed to the throne presented by William of Orange, once a symbol of power and dominion, now unoccupied.        It should remain vacant, he said, as a symbol to both traditions that neither will gain over the other and both would be preserved and cherished in a new Ireland.   “Flag-waving will not do”, he said.  He pledged that his party would not place its own interests above the common goal. "The common goal of which I speak is - and has to be - reconciliation."

That process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland took a great step forward when the British and Irish governments decided to address and resolve their own differences.


Downing Street Declaration

The Downing Street Declaration followed long and difficult work by the governments led by John Major and Albert Reynolds.

It did not itself bring violence to an end.  It was another nine months before the IRA declared its first ceasefire.  But it was a catalyst for that ceasefire.

The Declaration was short but its language was dense. John Major later wrote that the document “would not have won an award for plain and unambiguous language”.

Colm Toibín has written of the creative language of diplomacy, which - though rarely beautiful and often convoluted – can nonetheless create new spaces where agreement can take root and flourish.

That is what the Declaration achieved.  In its own words, it set out to “make both Governments persuaders for agreement”.

In doing so, it provided a foundation for the cooperation between the British and Irish governments that we continue today as co-guarantors of the Agreements.


The Good Friday Agreement

What was agreed at Downing Street was not the blueprint for a settlement.  That would take another five years of hard work.

The Declaration made the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 possible.  But it took a man like George Mitchell to make it happen.

Senator Mitchell will receive the Presidential Medal for services to peace and reconciliation in Áras an Uachtarán tomorrow by President Higgins.

We are honoured that he and his wife Heather have joined us this evening.



I would like to acknowledge few people who are present and some who could not be.

Albert Reynolds forged a partnership and built a trust between an Irish Taoiseach and a British Prime Minister that was rare if not unique up to that point.    In doing so, they created something indispensable.

Albert Reynolds could not be here but happily Kathleen Reynolds has joined us with their daughters, Emer, Andrea and Cathy, and their son, Philip.

John Bruton, who worked also in close partnership with Sir John Major and who helped create the blueprint for the Good Friday Agreement, could not be with us but his role and legacy should be fully acknowledged.

The death of Fr Alec Reid last month deprived us of one of the true initiators of the peace process through his role in the talks with John Hume and Gerry Adams at this time.

Dick Spring, who worked closely with Patrick Mayhew and Peter Brooke, is with us and has agreed to make some closing remarks.

In time history will acknowledge the important role played by several British and Irish public servants in this process, many of whom are with us this evening: John Chilcot,  Ken Bloomfield,  David Fell, Maurice Hayes, Martin Mansergh, Seán Ó hUiginn and others.

Finally, I want to thank John Bowman for moderating tonight’s discussion.


John Major

The Peace Process was only one issue among many during Sir John Major’s seven years in office.

He steered the United Kingdom through a period of intense questioning as to its relationship with the European Union, making clear that his objective was to ensure that Britain exerted a strong and positive influence at the very heart of Europe.  It is an objective that Ireland supports as strongly today as we did then.

When speaking of politics, Sir John is eloquent.

But when it comes to cricket, he is poetic.  “Cricket entered my bloodstream when I was a child” he once wrote “and it has given me a lifetime of enjoyment and solace. It delights the eye and touches the soul”.

He remains an influential and respected voice, whose comments provoked national debate in Britain last month when he criticised an education system which he believes impedes social mobility.

When he reflected on his premiership, he characterised his work in support of the peace process as “the most difficult, frustrating, and from 1993, time consuming problem of government during my premiership. It was also the most rewarding”.

I suspect George Mitchell might agree with that assessment.

So to reflect on British Irish relations - twenty years a growing - please welcome The Right Honourable Sir John Major.