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Downing St - Monday 7 October lobby briefing

Monday 7 October lobby briefing
[7 October 2002]



The PMOS briefly outlined to journalists the timetable for the week ahead. The Prime Minister was scheduled to be meeting David Trimble tomorrow afternoon. He would then have dinner with the Taioseach on Wednesday evening. We did not rule out further meetings on Northern Ireland with parties in Downing St this week rather than next. We were currently under discussion with some of the other parties about whether meetings planned for the beginning of next week could be re-scheduled for this, including Sinn Fein.

Asked what ideas, if any, the Prime Minister had for persuading the various parties, particularly the Unionists on one side and Sinn Fein on the other, to try and keep the process going or whether he was inured to it wrapping up very soon the PMOS said that the Prime Minister was completely seized of the gravity of the current situation. He did believe that we needed to pause and take stock. There were meetings scheduled for this week and those due to take place next may also now take place this. The Prime Minister believed it was important that those meetings happened and that there wasn't precipitate action before discussions had taken place. As John Reid had underlined yesterday these were very difficult times for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). It was time for some hard talking. There were serious questions which Sinn Fein had to answer and we understood the concerns being expressed by the Ulster Unionists and other members of the community in Northern Ireland about what had been happening. That said, we believed it important that there was a short breathing space where we could take stock of where we were and see what could happen and if and how we could move forward.

Asked whether the breathing space would be long or short the PMOS said that we had a series of meetings in the coming days and it was important that they took place and we discussed with the parties the way forward. Clearly, throughout the history of this process confidence had been the oxygen which sustained the Agreement. When you looked at the events of last Friday, Castlereagh, what John Reid had described yesterday as the 'Colombian Adventure' - there were genuine concerns about activities happening that were incompatible with the Agreement. Obviously it was important that Sinn Fein showed that they understood that.

Asked whether suspension or review was under more active consideration the PMOS said that there was no point in speculating on the consequences of failure. As we had said over the course of the weekend it was always easier to bring things down than to build them up again. That said there was some hard talking that was going to have to happen and as he had said at the outset the Prime Minister was absolutely seized of the seriousness of the situation and perfectly understood the questions that were being asked. As both he and John Reid had said in the House in July "it is increasingly urgent that it should be clear that Paramilitary organisations should not be engaged in any preparation for acts of terrorism and they should be stood down altogether as soon as possible." It had to be made it clear that preparations for violence had ceased. For example, the Prime Minister had talked in his statement of 24 July of training and targeting. Asked if these were the questions that Sinn Fein would have to answer when they met the Prime Minister the PMOS said that clearly as John Reid had said last week you couldn't ride two horses here. People were raising perfectly legitimate concerns and while we didn't want to get into the business of previewing particular talks, Sinn Fein had to show they understood that.

Asked what questions Sinn Fein had to answer, given that the accusations were a matter for the Police, and would those questions amount to seeking a promise not to do it again the PMOS said he wasn't going to dictate or be prescriptive about what people should do. What was absolutely clear from the Prime Minister's words in July and John Reid's at the Labour Party conference there were activities which were continuing to go on which were in contravention of the GFA. We were in the transition from conflict to peace and it was important that Sinn Fein understood the seriousness with which this was being viewed.


Asked if the Government had been given legal advice that military action for regime change in Iraq as a policy would be unlawful and difficult to sustain under international law the PMOS said that as journalists knew it was standard practice of successive government's never to comment on legal advice. He added that an awful lot of stuff was written in newspapers which we didn't get too worked up about that.

Asked whether this meant he disagreed with Clare Short's reported views that it would be against international law the PMOS said it was important to remember where we were at the moment. We were working to secure a new resolution at the UN Security Council which would give a new mandate to UNSCOM. Hans Blix had said that would be helpful to him and that he wanted one. The issues that he had been raising in his talks in New York were being taken on board. We were confident that there would be a new resolution. We couldn't give a timescale on when there might be a text. Intensive discussions were going on in New York and among the members of the P5. That work was focussing on the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. That was the objective. We had always said we would act in accordance with international law. On the issue of regime change, as the Prime Minister had said last Thursday certainly that would be desirable but it had never been our objective. In relation to the resolution we were unable to give a time scale, it was obviously important to get the detail right rather than rush it.


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