British Prime Minister John Major with Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Albert Reynolds on the Joint Declaration at a press conference outside Downing Street in 1993.  Image credit:

Overcoming Enmity: The Evolution of British-Irish Relations in the 1990s

The subject of this lecture has been chosen to coincide with the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and with an important conference on its global impact which is being held at Churchill College, Cambridge. The College is home to the Churchill Archives Centre, which houses many collections relating to British-Irish relations in the twentieth century, including the papers of Prime Minister Sir John Major.

As a Downing Street official from 1993 to 1996, Roderic Lyne was working for John Major as the Peace Process in Northern Ireland began to gather momentum. From that perspective he will explore how progress was made where earlier initiatives had failed.

He will argue that:

“history was the biggest obstacle to peace….we were dealing with two minorities, each of which felt threatened…The long history of sectarian competition had bred a zero/sum mentality.” The leading figures in Northern Ireland politics had been around for a generation: “Each carried into any discussion a groaning backpack of historical baggage. Getting the pack off the back was no simple matter.”

70 years after Partition and 20 years after joint entry to the European Union, relations between the British and Irish Governments were still far from normal. They, too, were infected by historical grievances. However Lyne witnessed the development of a remarkable friendship between John Major and Albert Reynolds which allowed the two Prime Ministers to negotiate the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993. Major and Reynolds were “completely dissimilar characters” who had risen on their abilities from humble origins; but both were determined to take the opportunity to work together towards the ending of violence.

Many factors had contributed to that opportunity:

  • The peace process was the culmination of ‘a strategy of managing, limiting and reducing conflict to the point where it is conducted, not by arms, but by argument and negotiation.’
  • There was a ‘common perception of deadlock in the armed struggle’ and growing evidence that leaders of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein were looking for a way into the political arena.
  • Significant work had been done over years to deal with the economic, social and cultural undercurrents of conflict and to drain support for violence.
  • Popular pressure and support for the peace process played an important part.

As the process moved from the Downing Street Declaration to the ceasefires announced in the autumn of 1994 and then into negotiations with the representatives of the paramilitaries, Major had to combat deep apprehensions on both sides, continuing to work closely with Dublin and, increasingly, with the Clinton Administration in the United States. He insisted that parties had to show that they had given up the threat of violence before entering into all-party talks. The British and Irish Governments enlisted the aid of George Mitchell to tackle the problem of the decommissioning of weapons. This did not prevent the IRA from ending their ceasefire for a period from February 1996, but paved the way for all-party talks and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Sir Roderic concludes that:

“If ‘enmity’ ever was the right word for relations between Britain and Ireland, it is way in the past. So now, I believe, is enmity between the Republic and the majority community in the North. Many of the historical fears are being laid to rest.

I do not believe that the conflict within Northern Ireland will ever resume in its previous form. There are still small groups of irreconcilables prepared to use criminal violence for criminal ends. There are still acute tensions around power-sharing, and the political process has been erratic and unstable. But nearly two decades without armed struggle, two decades of relative peace, have had a transformative effect.

Peace, however, has yet to bridge the divide between the communities. The ‘Peace Process’ is far from over. It will not have succeeded while sectarianism remains. The desegregation of Northern Ireland cannot be done from outside. It is a slow and challenging task for the people of the North over the next generation.”

The Roskill Memorial Lecture was instituted by Churchill College as the most appropriate means of commemorating the life and work of the distinguished naval historian Stephen Roskill. It usually embraces the topics of international security and public policy. Previous lecturers include Lord Carrington, Sir Michael Howard, Bridget Kendall, Ken Livingstone and Robert Zoellick.


Watch Sir Roderic Lyne’s lecture.

Photo: British Prime Minister John Major with Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader Albert Reynolds on the Joint Declaration at a press conference outside Downing Street in 1993. Image credit: