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10 Downing St Lobby Briefing On Northern Ireland


Asked about Northern Ireland, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa over the weekend. He had also spoken to President Clinton again to bring him up to date. In his statement today, Peter Mandelson would say that the IRA statement was a significant development. For the first time, we felt that we had a commitment to put weapons verifiably beyond use in a context which was realistic rather than simply aspirational. It was fair to say that whilst there were still difficulties and while difficult questions would still arise which we would have to deal with, we were encouraged by the reaction there had been to the IRA's statement and the apparent acceptance that this was a significantly different position given that they were saying things they had not said before.

Asked about Mr Ahtisaari and Mr Ramaphosa's role, the PMOS said that both were keen to get involved. In their own ways, both had considerable experience in this kind of conflict-resolution situation. Obviously, it would depend in part on their other commitments and their timetables. We envisaged being in detailed discussion as regards how they would operate very soon. Asked to whom they were responsible, the PMOS said that they would be working in conjunction with the de Chastelain Commission on Decommissioning. Asked whether the Commission's remit would now be extended beyond 22 May, the PMOS said yes. Asked if President Clinton would play a greater role, the PMOS said that the President took a keen personal interest in Northern Ireland. Over the last few weeks, there had been a lot going on behind the scenes in which both he and his officials had been involved, and no doubt that would continue. The PMOS added that one of the reasons why we had been able to make the progress we had made, which was helping to rebuild the trust which had clearly been damaged when we had had to suspend the institutions, was the fact that despite the many discussions taking place not a thing had been leaked. Asked whether President Clinton intended to visit Northern Ireland, the PMOS said he was not aware of any plans. That was entirely a matter for the Americans.

Asked if we had received any assurances from Loyalist Paramilitaries that they intended to put their weapons out of use, the PMOS said that the de Chastelain Commission would continue its contacts with all the different bodies it had contacts with. He added that the fact this issue had been left to General de Chastelain had helped the process.

Asked if the Northern Ireland Police Bill was expected to be published this week, the PMOS said no. It would be published within the next couple of weeks. Asked if the phrase 'incorporating the RUC' would be included in the Bill, the PMOS said he had seen the media reports. Peter Mandelson had made clear that the Patten Bill would be implemented and legislated for. We were aware of continuing concerns which were being put to us and we were continuing to discuss them with the relevant parties. He declined to comment on the detail of the discussions taking place on this.

Asked if the prospect to reinstate the institutions by 22 May was a realistic one, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister and Taoiseach had said late on Friday night, provided the responses were positive and these discussions continued in the positive vein they had been conducted, we believed that to be a realistic prospect. Asked what would trigger this process off, the PMOS said that we were dealing with a political situation and political realities. It would therefore depend in part on how the parties and paramilitaries responded to what we had announced on Friday.


In answer to questions about Northern Ireland, the Downing Street Spokesman essentially went over the same ground as this morning. The Prime Minister had said at Cabinet that, without overstating it, there were possibilities we would work on. He was due to see representatives of the smaller Parties tonight with the Taoiseach and would meet the main Parties tomorrow. The Spokesman added that that the fact the Prime Minister was in Northern Ireland tomorrow did not mean he would not react to the election results.

The Spokesman said that the Prime Minister was due to depart for Northern Ireland this afternoon. Contrary to BBC coverage this morning, the Taoiseach would also attend the talks.

Asked when the Prime Minister might return from Northern Ireland, the Spokesman said he was travelling to Belfast later today and would meet with representatives of the smaller Parties tonight in Hillsborough. He would stay overnight and meet with the larger Parties tomorrow. He was expected to return at some point tomorrow. Asked when the Taoiseach was due to arrive in Belfast, the Spokesman said that as he understood it, Mr Ahern was expected to arrive at around 5pm today.

Asked whether the Prime Minister had spoken to David Trimble or any other key player today, the Spokesman said there had been contacts with Parties yesterday, but it would not be helpful for him to go into detail. Asked why the Prime Minister had not spoken to the Taoiseach by phone contrary to what had been advised yesterday, the Spokesman said it had been felt it was not necessary inasmuch as the preparatory work which had been going on with officials was going well and that things had been put in place for another round of talks today. The Spokesman reminded journalists that we had said yesterday it was not a question of whether talks would take place, but when. We believed we were now in a position to take things forward.

Asked if we were any closer to putting a draft formula to the Parties, the Spokesman said there were a number of ideas which we believed were worth discussing with the Parties. He emphasised we were not talking about a blueprint but about ideas for discussion. What we would be seeing today and tomorrow was the two Governments preparing the path down which the Parties would have to go if the issues of arms decommissioning and the restitution of the institutions were to be sorted out. He underlined that the Governments would do what they could, but ultimately it was for the Parties to reach agreement on how we took the process forward.

Asked how the Prime Minister felt about criticism that he was 'running away' from a possible electoral embarrassment, the Spokesman commented that you couldn't stop cynics being cynical. No one would doubt the Prime Minister's commitment to the peace process and the people of Northern Ireland. He certainly would not be going if he didn't think it was worth it. We believed there were some ideas worth discussing with the Parties. Clearly, wherever the Prime Minister was, he would be asked questions by the media on the issues of the day and would no doubt respond to them.


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