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UK Press Briefing: 3.45pm Wednesday 9 February 200

Press Briefing: 3.45pm Wednesday 9 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Gerry Conlon Apology, Footballers/Role Models and FOI.

Gerry Conlon Apology

Asked for clarification about the Gerry Conlon issue, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that as he had already said at the morning lobby, it was always a matter for the Speaker of House as to whether he thought it was an appropriate question for PMQs or not. The Speaker had made a judgement. The Prime Minister had wanted to make his position clear on the record, and he had done so.

Asked if the Speaker had communicated directly with No10 to indicate if it was not going to happen, the PMOS said we did not get involved in talking about conversations with the Speaker. Gerry Conlon had said that the family were more than happy with the way things had turned out, and that was the important thing.

Asked what the Prime Minister felt was the significance of the statement in a general sense, the PMOS said this was a distinct request that the family asked for. They first asked for a letter to be sent to the leader of the SDLP last April, which we did. They then decided that they wanted it to be made public, and the Taoiseach and the SDLP asked for that last week during their recent meetings. The Prime Minister was quite content to make the statement public today. The PMOS said that as he had commented this morning people could not change the pain of the past in Northern Ireland, nor the pain of the victims or their families, but sometimes people could do things that helped to deal with the pain of the present. If it could be done, then it was the decent thing to try and do, and this was how the apology should be seen. It should not be seen through a political spectrum, but rather, as something we were able to do which would help the families. It would also importantly help clarify once and for all that they were innocent victims of a miscarriage of justice.

Asked what signal the apology sent to the Republican community, the PMOS said he was always very reluctant to get drawn into making statements relating to victims. This was because it looked like in some way, victims were part of the political game, which was not the way it should be regarded. What people had to do, in the face of the past, was to approach the situation with a degree of humility, and be very careful about handling the past. If there were certain things that anyone could do, on any side that would ease the pain of the victims, then people should endeavour to do them.

Asked what the Prime Minister would say to the Birmingham Six and other victims of miscarriages of justice, and would they too receive an apology from him, the PMOS replied that he was not getting into hypothetical situations. Where there were miscarriages of justice, it was right and proper that we recognised that in the past, that had been the case. This was a specific request, relating to the circumstances of the family, and their strong desire that there should be a public statement that completely exonerated them. The PMOS said that the meeting was one that anyone who attended would ever forget; the strength of feelings of relief that the Prime Minister's apology brought to them was obvious, and was obvious to anyone who had spoken to the family since. The PMOS said he was not going to get into other cases, as it was not appropriate today.

Put to him that there were many other people who felt they had been victimised and badly treated by the British judicial system, and why should one set of people receive an apology, but not another, the PMOS answered that one judged each set of circumstances on the circumstances. In Northern Ireland, there had been far too many victims, and if the present problems that people suffered from in any way could be relieved, then that was the right and decent thing to do.

Asked to respond to Ian Paisley's question about progress towards appointing a new Victims Commissioner, the PMOS referred the journalist to the Northern Ireland Office, as they were in charge of running the process. The PMOS said there were two things that should be recognised. The first was, what had actually been achieved to help victims since the Good Friday Agreement. A remarkable fact was, it was only since the Good Friday that there had been action taken to help victims. The second point to recognise was that everyone had to show humility, and recognise that what help was provided would never be enough. However, we had tried through the establishment of various funds to move things forward.

Put to him that the SDLP had suggested that the Conlon and Maguire families should receive proper compensation, he PMOS said he did not want to comment on such matters since it was a matter for the Home Office to consider.

Put to the PMOS again that Gerry Conlon had said the Prime Minister had told him that he would "look into" financial compensation and also medical help, the PMOS repeated that the Home Office was the proper department to be dealing with the issue, and he did not want to prejudge that process.

Asked if any new evidence had emerged recently to inspire this apology, given that there had been three Prime Ministers in the interim, the PMOS said: no, as this apology was asked for by initially the SDLP, then by the Irish Government. It was done so because of the particular circumstances of the families, and the judgement that the family continued to suffer from the trauma of the feeling that other people continued to think that in some way they were guilty. The Prime Minister believed it was right to underline for the sake of the family that he believed they were completely exonerated. It was the right thing to do.

Asked if it would not have any effect whatsoever on the wider political process, the PMOS said that people would reflect on this and draw their own conclusions. It was right and proper, however, that people did that for themselves, rather than in some way, we tried to use this to make a broader political point. This was a request that came forward, and therefore, it was proper that we responded to it as such.

Asked if the Prime Minister had shaken hands with the families, the PMOS said that he had.

Asked if the Prime Minister had apologised to the Bloody Sunday victims, as he had done to the Irish Potato famine, the PMOS replied that as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was still ongoing, he could not be certain. It was better to await to outcome of that.

Put that this could be the "thin end of a wedge" and where did the apologies stop, once started, the PMOS said that particular circumstances surrounding one event had to be considered. That was what we were asked to do by both the SDLP and the Irish Government, and it had brought relief and was the right thing to do.

Footballers/Role Models

Referring back to his question at yesterday afternoon's lobby about footballers as role models, the Daily Express asked what the Prime Minister thought were the qualities seen in Roy Keane that made him a trusted figure, the PMOS said he had discussed many things with the Prime Minister, but never this issue. He would try in the future to do so, but he would not define that term given the journalist's interest!

Asked why the BBC had been sent an email by The Treasury, the PMOS replied it was matter for the Treasury.

Asked if the PMOS could comment on any newspaper speculation today regarding the email, the PMOS said: no.

FOI

Asked if the Government was justified in not releasing economic forecasts, the PMOS replied that whenever people looked at the Act, it allowed for exemptions under two circumstances. First of all, if it was believed that they were in the economic interests of the nation, and the second was regarding material relating to the development of policy (ie so civil servants could speak to Ministers and give their objective advice) without it then being made public. The Lord Chancellor underlined the importance of those two circumstances today.

Asked how the decision making process worked, when dealing with requests, the PMOS referred the journalist to the Cabinet Office and the DCA.


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