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UK Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 9 February 2005

Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 9 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: PM Apology, Freedom of Information Act and Europe.

PM Apology

Asked if the Prime Minister would make an apology to those wrongly convicted of the Guilford Pub bombings at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that it was entirely a matter for the speaker. Who he called and whether such an opportunity would arise was up to him. What he could say was that all those involved with Northern Ireland lived with the pain of the past and the unfortunate fact was that you could do nothing to change the past. Sometimes however there was an opportunity to at least ease the pain of the present. It was the decent thing to do if you were in that situation to take that opportunity. Asked if the wording had already been negotiated, the PMOS said that we should wait and see what happened. It was a matter of record that the leader of the SDLP had suggested to the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister should write to him. The Prime Minister had written acknowledging that there had been a miscarriage of justice and expressing his regret for that. That was last April. The Taoiseach raised the matter last week, as again did the leader of the SDLP.

Asked if this had been timed to coincide with recent disagreements with the IRA, the PMOS said no. This should be seen for what it was: a distinct, specific request to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. People should not play politics with this, but see it as a distinct episode. Mistakes had been made and it was right and proper that those mistakes were acknowledged. Asked why specifically it was being acknowledged now given that the miscarriage of justice was admitted 15 years ago, the PMOS said that the family felt that an open acknowledgement would ease what they saw as their continuing trauma. If that was the case then it was the decent thing to do.

Asked what the Prime Minister had actually said in the letter last April, the PMOS said that, from memory, the letter had acknowledged that had been a clear miscarriage of justice, sincerely regretting that miscarriage of justice, and recognising that those who had been accused were innocent.

Asked if the Government had acknowledged this at the time, the PMOS said that what the Conlan family wanted was an open apology and if that was the case then that was the decent thing to do.

Freedom of Information Act

Asked if the Government was using the Freedom of Information Act as a propaganda tool, the PMOS said that first and foremost we should recognise that the information was being released because the Government put forward the Freedom of Information Act. That was how this opportunity arose. Secondly proper procedures would be followed and those procedures would be overseen by the Civil Service and the appropriate people. Asked who made the final decisions on what information to give, the PMOS said that in respect of the ERM case his understanding was that current Government Ministers would not permitted to see the information until it was published. In these situations the Civil Service department concerned was in charge of the decisions in consultation with the Cabinet Office and the DCA. It was a long standing convention that the current administration did not see the papers of the previous administration. Asked about the thin line between what could and could not be published, the PMOS said that the act set out the limits. It was always clear that there would exemption for material relating to policy, because otherwise Government couldn't get advice in the objective way necessary. There were also exemptions on what was judged to be the economic interest of the nation. The over-seeing of all this was dealt with by clear provisions in the act.

Europe

Put to him that the Foreign Secretary's comments this morning about the European Constitution being as far as we went contradicted the Prime Minister's stance that he didn't have time for people who weren't willing to move forward with Europe, the PMOS said that the two were perfectly compatible although some may not wish to acknowledge that. What the constitution clearly established was a Europe of nation-states cooperating together as nation states. Sharing Sovereignty on issues when it was of interest to do so but operating as a union of nation-states. That was clearly enshrined in the Constitution. That was also the reality of a Union of 25, in which many of the existing members and the majority of new members shared the same view of Europe as we did. That was the reality of the Europe we were dealing with. The overall principles were clearly set out in the Constitution. Asked if he could give any assurance that this Bill would be proceeded with in coming weeks, the PMOS said that was a matter for those who dealt with the timetable for Parliament.


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