The UK government needs to “maximise” its relationship with Ireland and build on close political ties forged during the peace process, according to former UK prime minister John Major.
Giving evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Major reflected on Stormont’s collapse over the Northern Ireland protocol dispute and described the post-Brexit trade deal as “perhaps one of the least-well-done negotiations in modern history”.
Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, Mr Major told TDs and Senators on Thursday that “every effort” should be made to made to resolve the issue so that “the protocol problem ceases to be an inhibitor” to the Executive’s restoration.
The North has been without a powersharing Executive for almost a year as the DUP refuses to form a government until its concerns over the protocol are addressed.
Mr Major was prime minister and Conservative Party leader from 1990 until 1997.
Regarded as an architect of the peace talks that paved the way for the signing of the 1998 peace agreement, he told committee ministers of the close bond he developed with former taoiseach Albert Reynolds, saying that despite disagreements he became a “friend to cherish”.
Asked by Fine Gael Senator Emer Currie about the current state of Anglo-Irish relations, Mr Major acknowledged the “chequered history” between the two countries. “But a different relationship was built up through and after the peace process. And we need that to continue. You cannot build up that relationship unless you meet together, unless you talk together, unless you trade together, unless you work together, unless you share a similar outlook,” he said.
“So all through government, not just on matters related to Northern Ireland, we really need a more in-depth relationship with Ireland in my view.
“I would say that we need to maximise the relationship with our nearest neighbour because that is in our British interest, as well as the Irish interest and I think it is very important that that actually happens.”
As opposition to a controversial UK government Bill dealing with the legacy of the Troubles intensifies as it makes its way through parliament, Mr Major declined to give his view on the proposed legislation. He said it would be “unwise” as he was no longer in parliament and “not involved” in the negotiations.
[ UK considering further changes to planned Northern Ireland legacy Bill ]
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, whose father Pat was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989, pressed Mr Major to comment on the legacy Bill, which he branded a “draconian piece of legislation”.
Mr Finucane also referenced independent reports confirming “collusion existed between the British government’s intelligence agencies and loyalist paramilitaries” before asking Mr Major if he was ever briefed on the “endemic” collusion strategy “on his watch”.
Mr Major insisted he “absolutely was not briefed”, adding: “I certainly didn’t actively approve of it because I wasn’t aware of it.”
He reiterated his reluctance to comment publicly on the legacy Bill, which is opposed by the North’s five main political parties, the Irish Government, human rights organisations and victims’ groups, and the United States Congress.
“The only knowledge I have of the Bill is the fact that it’s going through the House of Lords and such small amounts as have occasionally appeared in parts of the British media,” Mr Major told Mr Finucane.
“So I would be commenting from a considerable lack of knowledge and I just do not think that is a safe thing for anyone to do. I can say something ... that could cause deep offence, which I certainly wouldn’t wish to do and it’s such a delicate subject.”
Debated in the House of Lords earlier this week following amendments, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will provide immunity for perpetrators accused of Troubles-related offences as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body; it would also halt future civil cases and inquests linked to the conflict.