Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech in Dublin on Thursday 4 December 2014 at the Outstanding Contribution to Ireland Awards.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
It is not easy to say how moved I am to receive this Award and I know that Albert would be, too: the fact that he is not beside me now is the only blot on this wonderful evening. But – in a very real sense – Albert isn’t absent. His spirit lives on. And how thrilled he would be that Kathleen – his wife and his inspiration – is here, together with so many members of their family: to them I say, “You have every right to be proud of Albert – he is, and will forever remain, a genuine hero of Irish history.”
But a very human, down-to-earth hero. When we first met, as Finance Ministers in the 1980s, Albert looked suspiciously at this very English man whose father was a trapeze artist. And I looked pensively at this very Irish man who owned dance halls. Yet, in a few minutes, we were aware of a similarity of outlook that made us allies, not opponents; friends, more than acquaintances.
Some years later, we met as Prime Minister and Taoiseach. When our formal business was concluded, we left our officials to talk and moved to the White Drawing Room at Number 10. Just the two of us – with a glass or two as company. It was there and then that we decided to work together.
We were optimistic. We felt a deal could be done because violence could not win. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. That it might go wrong. We recognised we might start a process and not be there to finish it. We weren’t blind to any of these problems, but nor were we blind to the rewards of success – and the prize it would yield for the future. And, as Albert once put it, “Given the size of my family – the future is important.”
Albert’s family: visiting Albert and Kathleen, when the family is there, is as comforting as a warm blanket. It’s very Irish. It’s why it’s widely believed in England and America that everyone must have an Irish relative. I am sure that I do. My father was born in 1879 – a long time ago.
When my grandfather married in 1873 it was to a young girl who had never been taught to write, and left no record of her youth. But, since her name was Sarah O’Marrah, Irish roots seem very likely – and, if so, I am proud to acknowledge them.
“The past”, wrote L P Hartley, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Those famous lines apply to all Ireland after the evolution of the Peace Process. The past was different. The present – and future – has been transformed.
Bilateral relations are better now than at any time in our long history. In 2011, Her Majesty The Queen made an historic State Visit to Ireland. The return visit of President Michael D. Higgins was an equal triumph. I was at the Albert Hall on the evening when Ireland sang, Ireland danced, and Ireland’s President spoke of a “true and deep friendship” between our two countries. Never before could that truly have been said, but it was on that magical night – and is now the template for our future relations. In trade, in politics, in culture we have never been closer.
Our Governments have set up bilateral co operation on a scale that neither has ever had with any other country. They plan to jointly promote British and Irish companies around the world. Bi-lateral trade now exceeds 1 Billion Euros every week. There are more Irish companies listed on the London Stock Exchange – and more Irish Directors on the Boards of UK companies – than from any other country. The border with Northern Ireland has become almost invisible. There are no border controls. Rail and road links are improved. By the end of next year a single visa scheme will allow visa holders to travel to both our countries. Last year saw our first ever UK-Ireland military mission. I could go on, but the point is made.
All of this is a legacy of the Peace Process and of the many people – known and unknown – who weaved a thread to create this canvas for the future. The weavers make for a great gathering: politicians, civil servants, clerics, members of the public, and – yes – those paramilitaries who realised that political engagement was the only way ahead and that a decent future could never be born of violence. All these – and others – played a part. Together, Ireland – North and South – has buried an unwanted past, and awakened hope in a future few believed could ever happen.
And how much that outcome meant to Albert. He fought for peace – always with an eye to the future, and an ear cocked so that he would not miss the final gunshot, the last explosion.
Albert may now be gone from our sight, but I’ve no doubt he’s looking down on us this evening and chuckling. Apart from anything else, Albert always loved a good party – and I know he wouldn’t miss this one…
Many years ago, when my father was old and very sick, he sought to reassure his grieving son by telling him that no-one is ever really gone while they remain in the hearts of those they leave behind. Albert was truly loved by his family – and will linger on in many other hearts too: he will never be lost to us while that memory remains.
At Albert’s funeral, his daughter, Andrea, read from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, “Citizen in a Republic”, in which Roosevelt honours the “Man in the Arena”. It was so apt then – and still is. As I listened to that reading some other lines came to mind, translated from Spanish by Robert Graves, but originally written by a bullfighter. It captures accurately how the man in the arena has a unique perspective:
“Bullfight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous Plaza full
But only one is there who knows
And he’s the man who fights the bull.”
Of course, Albert fought only for peace. He charmed his opponents with guile, with persistence, and – let me be strictly honest – with an occasional embroidery of the facts. Albert liked facts. He knew they could inform. He knew also that – with a little rearrangement – they could persuade. So, when necessary, Albert rearranged them – mischievously, perhaps, but with a purpose: the purpose being to bring an end to bloodshed.
Albert and I did not achieve the final deal: others did – and I praise them for that. But I do believe we pointed the way and am honoured – as Albert would have been – by your generous acknowledgement of our role.
For that – on my own behalf as well as Albert’s – I truly thank you.