John Major privately feared the IRA could never be defeated militarily

John Major privately feared the IRA could never be defeated militarily when he was Prime Minister, newly-released Government papers show

  • John Major admitted privately he did not believe IRA could be beaten militarily
  • He told the Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds it would be ‘very difficult’ in a memo
  • Irish government note was part of a tranche of official documents made public 

John Major did not believe the IRA could be beaten militarily, he admitted privately while he was Prime Minister.

He told the Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds it would be ‘very difficult’ and could prove impossible to defeat the IRA by force, a memo from their Downing Street meeting in February 1992 revealed yesterday.

The Irish government note was part of a tranche of official documents related to the Northern Ireland peace process made public by the National Archives.

John Major told Albert Reynolds that he was unsure if IRA could be militarily defeated and warned British were not suffering from battle fatigue, according to newly released documents from the National Archives. Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey (left) with former British Prime Minister John Major (right) during a visit to Dublin for talks in 1991

The thousands of files included a British intelligence assessment that Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya had sent arms and aid worth more than $12million to the IRA – the equivalent of £34million today.

Another memo revealed the Government believed Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was on the IRA Army Council at the time of the first ceasefire in 1994 – something he always denied.

And a confidential note from an Irish diplomat assessed Boris Johnson – then a Daily Telegraph journalist – as a Eurosceptic who was ‘naive’ in his writing about Northern Ireland’s politics.

Mr Major’s doubts about the prospects of military success against the IRA came in a memo of his meeting with the newly elected Mr Reynolds in which the Irish leader asked the Prime Minister directly: ‘Do you think we can defeat the IRA?’

Mr Major responded: ‘Militarily that would be very difficult. I would not say this in public, of course, but, in private, I would say, possibly no.’

The memo revealed the frustrations on both sides regarding a lack of progress in talks between the main political parties in Northern Ireland, with Mr Reynolds saying: ‘My own impression is that the talks are not getting anywhere.’

He said he felt the IRA were ‘serious’ about peace. Mr Major replied: ‘If they are serious, they are certainly going the wrong way about it.’

The two men met a year after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on Downing Street while Mr Major held a Cabinet meeting inside. 

John Major (left) and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds (right) during a news conference at 10 Downing Street in Westminster in 1993

Both voiced cautious optimism about the prospect of an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, with Mr Reynolds saying: ‘Peace may well be in sight.’

Mr Major told the meeting: ‘We are walking down a path and we can’t stop: we can’t stop talking or walking. 

‘Twenty-two years is a long time… there are a lot of dead bodies in between. I have the misfortune not to be an Irishman but I understand the importance of symbolism. We must be prepared to do unconventional things.’

A separate file released under the 30-year rule revealed the IRA got six major shipments of weapons from Libya, including Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers. 

During a private meeting between Mr Major and previous Irish leader Charles Haughey in 1991, Mr Haughey said: ‘The trouble is that Gaddafi is mad.’

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