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1994 - Mr Major’s Press Conference in Belfast

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference in Belfast on 14th December 1994.


PRIME MINISTER:

It is almost a year to the day, not precisely, but almost a year to the day that Albert Reynolds and I signed the Downing Street declaration. Let me share some thoughts with you on what has happened over that year and on this anniversary.

The International Investment Forum today and the five new investments that I was able to announce this morning are a striking vote of confidence in Northern Ireland's future, they also I think reflect the extent to which people are now beginning to believe that the peace process may be carried satisfactorily through to its conclusion. In the last 12 months we have travelled further down the road to peace than many people imagined we could, and frankly further than I had imagined we would get in this short timescale on that day in Downing Street.

Many of the worldly wise said to Albert Reynolds and I at that time that the burden of history was too great, that age-old animosities were still too fresh. Too many of my predecessors, they said, had come to grief on the Irish question and I would be foolish to court the same faith. But it was always repugnant to me that year in year, year out, whatever happened, terrorism seemed t continue remorselessly in Northern Ireland, victims accumulated year after year after year, civilians, army, RUC. We would not have tolerated that in Surrey, in Somerset, in Sussex, and it seemed to me to be no more tolerable in Ulster either. I believe that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had no choice but to put it at the top of the agenda to make sure whether or not we could reach a peace settlement. It was, and it will remain, amongst my highest priorities in Downing Street.

Every time I have come to Ulster the people of Ulster have reinforced me in that conviction. The first time I came here as Prime Minister was January 1991 and I was very struck on that occasion by your most universal yearning for peace amongst the people I met - Protestants, Catholics - it made no difference to the fact that they wished to see a final peace settlement, they were prepared to give their support to a peace settlement providing it was based on transparency, on fairness and on democracy.

Those views, the views that every single time I have come back to Northern Ireland I have found reinforced again, have been and are going to remain the guiding light of our policy on Northern Ireland. Nothing is going to be achieved, let us not fool ourselves, if it flies in the face of opinion in Ulster, it simply will not stick, at every stage we must be able take with us the Protestant and the Catholic mainstream opinions if we are to carry this through satisfactorily.

And it is for that reason, amongst others, that I have made a particular point of regularly visiting Ulster, this is my 5th visit in the last 12 months, and of taking the opportunity when I come of listening to as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible, not just the great and good in Ulster opinion, but shoppers, businessmen, churchmen, policemen, local councillors, members of Parliament, soldiers, all the people who legitimately have their own view on what they wish to see in their own homes and in their own communities. And the message I have received time and time again across the communities has been unaltering - stick with the peace process, do not be put off by any set-backs, we are behind you in the peace process provided you play fair and open with us. Well I have played fair and open with the people of Northern Ireland and I intend to go on playing fair and open with the people of Northern Ireland.

In October, in Belfast, I set out a comprehensive plan for taking forward the peace process. Many of the things I foreshadowed on that occasion have now become a reality. Last week the European Union pledged over 200 million pounds worth of assistance; the International and Investment Forum meeting last evening and today has been I think a huge success and that will become increasingly apparent, it levers the way open to further large-scale investment of the kind I announced this morning; President Clinton will hold a follow-up conference next spring and the Secretary of State will take with him a very powerful delegation from Northern Ireland; we have set in train exploratory talks with Sinn Fein and with the political representatives of the Loyalist paramilitaries, talks with the Loyalists open tomorrow and the second round of talks with Sinn Fein will take place on Monday of next week; as soon as we have a new government in Dublin, and that seems imminent, we will resume work to finalise the joint framework document as soon as we can; and then as I promised in Belfast in October, we will Publish both the framework document and the British government's plans for the way forward within Northern Ireland, including proposals for an assembly. And then at the end of it all we will, again as I promised in Belfast, put the outcome of the negotiations between the main political parties to a referendum of the people in Northern Ireland.

Fairness and openness are therefore the watchwords, they apply as much to Sinn Fein as to anybody else. There has been a great deal of talk over the months about parity of esteem and I think need to be quite clear about this. We have made absolutely plain to Sinn Fein from the outset that if the current exploratory phase of dialogue is successful then the door will open to them, open to them both to join the talks process with the other constitutional parties and to play generally a role in public life on the same footing as those other parties.

But that door to normal political life cannot be opened until the current exploratory phase is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, including the question of decommissioning arms and explosives. Years of terrorist violence cannot suddenly speedily be swept under the carpet as though it had never happened, and that is true whether we are talking about violence by the IRA or violence by the Loyalist Paramilitaries.

The Downing Street declaration has proved itself in 1994 to be a clear and a reliable route for the peace process. In 1995 the challenges to the process will I am sure remain formidable, but the declaration will show the way next year, just as it has done in the present year. I believe it removes the last shred of justification, if indeed any shred of justification ever existed, for using violence for political ends, it shows the two main communities, it shows Northern Ireland and the Republic, it shows London and it shows Dublin, that the burden of history can be overcome if the will to overcome it is there and if the patience to carry through the right sort of discussions and negotiations is there as well. And that is why the Downing Street declaration is of lasting value, that is why against the odds I believe today, perhaps more today than on any day in the last quarter of a century, it is perfectly possible for the people of Ulster to look around them and hope that the peace they see around them today may be a peace that will last and endure for good. That is the prize that is at stake, that is what the people of Ulster would wish to see us achieve, that is what anyone who stands in the way of that prize, they will have to explain to the people of Ulster why they have wrecked the prospects of a better life in the future than anyone has known in the past 25 years. Much progress has been made, more is to be done, but we will pursue the process with every hope of success.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (Mark Simpson, Belfast Telegraph):

This is your third visit since the IRA announced the ceasefire on August 31st, what exactly will it take from Sinn Fein for you to meet Gerry Adams on your next visit to Northern Ireland?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have to get through the exploratory talks. I would like to see Sinn Fein get through the exploratory talks, that means dealing with very tricky questions like weapons, semtex, explosives, detonators, I want to see them get through the exploratory talks and into talks with the main political parties and establish themselves as a proper democratic political party, then things change, but they have to get through those talks.

QUESTION (David Davenport, RTE):

Your statement in the Commons yesterday about the nature of a devolved assembly has caused some concern in Dublin, the view being that the limited nature of the assembly corresponds very closely to Mr. Molyneaux's view of the way forward in Northern Ireland. Would you care to comment on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I wouldn't. We will publish what we have in mind for the internal assembly in Northern Ireland when we publish the framework document but I am not going to anticipate that in advance; we will publish that on that occasion. What I said in the House of Commons yesterday was no different to what I have said on a number of occasions in the past.

QUESTION (Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph):

You say, Prime Minister, we have to deal with these tricky questions about weapons in the exploratory dialogue. Is it an absolute condition of entering the substantive political talks that the paramilitaries decommission all of their weapons and who would verify that?

PRIME MINISTER:

The latter part of the question is one of the things that needs to be discussed in the preliminary talks. We have got to make huge progress on that and it has got to be clear that there is huge progress and people must recognise it as the case and that isn't just a semantic point. If that progress isn't made, then not only would the mainstream political parties in Northern Ireland not sit down with Sinn Fein or indeed the Loyalist paramilitaries but neither would the British Government. You cannot sit down to talk about political matters with parties that retain the right to return to violence and retain large stocks of weapons in order to inflict violence upon other people. That isn't the way to conduct democratic negotiations.

Sinn Fein say to us that they wish to become a democratic party. I think that is a very welcome message indeed, I very much wish to see them become a democratic party but if that is so, they will not need large stocks of weapons that they may then revert to if one democratic decision or another goes against them. So it isn't a semantic point, it is a very significant and central point as to whether either the mainstream political parties in Northern Ireland or the British Government could sit down to proper political talks with Sinn Fein.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you say that Sinn Fein won't need to retain large stocks of weapons. Are you in a position to go one stage further and say absolutely clearly that for them to go on to the next stage of acceptance as a political party they will need to actually hand over the vast majority of their arms stocks

PRIME MINISTER:

"Hand-over" is never an expression I have used. What is really of concern to me and I think of concern to all the people out there in Northern Ireland, is that those weapons are no longer available for use in terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland.

I have to say to you I am not pedantic about whether those weapons are surrendered or whether those weapons are decommissioned and destroyed with some form of verification. I don't mind if they are decommissioned and destroyed but one would need to verify that that was the case. That is the significant point - that they are no longer available for use and a political party would not go back to a nice, neat little stockpile of weapons if something went against them and start using them again.

QUESTION (Irish Times):

Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annersley recently told journalists that he reckoned the current peace process had a 60/40 chance of surviving to Easter and if it thereafter survived a review by the general IRA organisation its chances would improve considerably. Would you agree with that estimation or do you have a different analysis?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think every day is a small victory for Northern Ireland, every day makes it a little less likely that violence will return. I can't make a direct judgement as to what the proportions are but I do believe that the longer the ceasefire holds, the more there would be such public repugnance if anyone returned to violence not necessarily Sinn Fein and the IRA but also the Loyalist paramilitaries - that the longer peace becomes entrenched, the longer the ceasefire becomes entrenched in Northern Ireland the less likelihood there is that it will return. I think Sir Hugh Annersley would make a better judgement than I would as to what might happen on the ground here but I do believe the general premise underlying his comments must be right.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, two questions in the absence of an opportunity to put them to you earlier:

Could I just ask you are you presupposing, Sir, that the people sitting at the table with your officials at Stormont are empowered or have control over the weapons to decommission them or otherwise? In other words, are you saying that the people sitting there are the people who can destroy, render, surrender those weapons?

My second question is: against the backdrop of your remarks yesterday about a potential upper tier of local government or some body or assembly which has control over local government, does that amount to the perception here that you are in Jim Molyneaux’s pocket let us say?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think probably the decision not to let you ask silly questions like that before might have been very wise but you certainly had the opportunity to put them now!

I suggest you wait until you see what our proposals are. I am not going to unveil our proposals in Strand 1 until we are ready to unveil the proposals in Strand 2 and Strand 3 and for a very good reason: when those proposals are unveiled, I want people to see what the whole package looks like, not what just little bits look want the people across Northern Ireland to see openly and fairly what the whole collection of decisions might look like if they were subsequently verified by the political parties and most important of all, subsequently verified in a referendum by the people of Northern Ireland and that is the point. Nothing is going to happen unless this has the general agreement of people across Northern Ireland.

What we are doing is bringing forward ideas; we are not imposing things upon people in Northern Ireland; we are seeking to bring forward ideas in the hope and belief that they will wish to consent to them and consent in Northern Ireland is going to be critical. We have learned that from history and I think it is right in practice as well that we should proceed on that basis.

As far as your first question is concerned, everybody has known prior to these talks beginning that we would need to deal with the question of weapons and I think those at the talks understand that and will endeavour to do so.