The prize of a successful outcome to the peace process was immense, he said. "We want to see the people of Northern Ireland permanently free from the fear of terrorist violence. We want to see institutions that reflect the different traditions...in a manner acceptable to all."
Countering the hostility of Unionists and the misgivings of some Tories, the Prime Minister said he cherished Northern Ireland's role within the Union.
"I have no intention whatsoever of letting that role change unless it is the democratic wish of the people of Northern Ireland to do so.''
Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledged full support and applauded Mr Major. Tony Blair told the Commons: "The house of peace has stayed shut and locked in Northern Ireland for too many years. This agreement is the key to its door."
But Ian Paisley and his two colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party boycotted the statement while Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionists said Mr Major had driven Northern Ireland back 10 years with a "dishonourable blueprint for an all-Ireland".
Mr Maginnis, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, asked if the Prime Minister was "confident that the IRA has fully understood his message enshrined in the framework document that when they resume their violence, they should not bomb the Baltic Exchange, since his government has now distanced itself from the 90 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland who have eschewed violence over the past 20 years and who have vested their faith in the ballot box?"
He asked how Mr Major could endorse the paragraph which declared the objective "is to promote and establish agreement among the people of the island of Ireland''?
"When the Prime Minister comes to write his memoirs, does he believe that, like his predecessor, he will regret his part in driving Northern Ireland back at least 10 years by promoting this dishonourable blueprint for an all-Ireland?"
In an impassioned reply, Mr Major said he understood the MP's strong feelings but begged him to examine the documents more carefully.
"I cannot accept that it drives Northern Ireland back 10 years to try to seek a peace that may be permanently entrenched in Northern Ireland after generations of mistrust and hatred: that is the purpose that underlies all the actions that are here."
He stressed the Government's determination to resist terrorism. "I will keep troops on the streets of Northern Ireland for as long as it is necessary to protect the people of Northern Ireland against terrorism, from whatever source that terrorism may come. While the IRA bombed and killed, they would have an implacable opponent in Downing Street. If they were prepared to talk and return to democratic politics, they would have "a ready ear".
Mr Major said he placed himself "alongside 100 per cent of the people in Northern Ireland in believing it is right to take action to move out of the spiral of despair" towards peace.
"It may be that it can't be done without disagreements, without setbacks, without problems. But it is right to try. And I say this to the honourable gentleman too: I do not believe that any Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Conservative or non-Conservative, could or should sit in Downing Street without actively trying to find a way out of the problems that have existed for so long."
However, while John Taylor, the normally trenchant Ulster Unionist MP for Strangford, said much in the framework documents would not be welcomed by Unionists, he paid tribute to Mr Major "for giving such priority to the problems of Northern Ireland".
Sir James Kilfedder, the sole Popular Unionist MP, urged the Prime Minister to establish an assembly as soon as possible. John Hume, leader of the SDLP, underlined Mr Major's assurance that nothing was being imposed by the documents and urged Unionists to join other parties at the negotiating table.
But Nicholas Winterton, Conservative MP for Macclesfield, asked how the maintenance of the Union could be squared with the IRA's objective of getting the UK out of Ulster.