Ireland 'just another island' for most Britons, Major told Clinton

The-then PM said in 1995 people in UK ‘don’t really care what happens elsewhere in the world’

US president Bill Clinton (L) listens to remarks by British prime minister John Major at an US Air Force base in Pittsburgh in 1994. Photograph: Win McNamee/Reuters

US president Bill Clinton (L) listens to remarks by British prime minister John Major at an US Air Force base in Pittsburgh in 1994. Photograph: Win McNamee/Reuters

 

Most Britons regard Ireland as “just another island” and “don’t really care what happens elsewhere in the world”, the then UK prime minister John Major once privately told US president Bill Clinton.

The comment is contained in newly declassified transcripts of phone calls between the two leaders dating back to the mid-1990s when both men were grappling with the turbulent early stages of the Northern Ireland peace process.

In a private telephone conversation on May 27th, 1995, recorded in the Oval Office, Mr Major told Mr Clinton that the IRA ceasefire, then nine months old, made it look like the paramilitary group “may be serious” about peace.

“Is any of this giving you a boost at home? Are your people recognising what’s been done?” the president asked.

“Not a bit,” replied Mr Major. “For most people here, Ireland is just another island. They don’t really care what happens elsewhere in the world.”

“I know how you feel,” said Mr Clinton. “Most Americans could care less about foreign policy, about what is happening outside US.”

The telephone conversations, declassified by the US National Archives for the William J Clinton Presidential Library, show the shock and despair felt by Mr Clinton, Mr Major and then taoiseach John Bruton about the IRA’s bombing of the London Docklands on February 9th, 1996, which ended the first ceasefire.

Britain’s then prime minister John Major greets taoiseach John Bruton at Downing Street, London, on December 9th, 1996. File photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters
Britain’s then prime minister John Major greets taoiseach John Bruton at Downing Street, London, on December 9th, 1996. File photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters

‘Pretty gutless’

Mr Clinton told Mr Major during a call four hours after the blast, which killed two people, that it was “pretty gutless” of the IRA to blame the bombing on the failure of the British to embrace the peace process.

In his calls with Mr Bruton and Mr Major, the then US president expressed surprise at the bombing, given that he had met Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams just days earlier at the White House.

“I talked to him and I didn’t see it coming,” the president said. “I feel badly.”

Mr Clinton told Mr Major that the bombing was “hard to explain” and that he “had no inkling of it”.

Two days after Mr Major lost the 1997 election to Tony Blair and the Labour Party – and two months before the IRA agreed a second, permanent ceasefire – Mr Clinton consoled the outgoing British leader over the heavy electoral defeat, telling him that he “never got the credit” for what he did in Northern Ireland.

“The British people should be proud of what you accomplished,” he said. “Your party hurt you more than you hurt it.”