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UK Press Briefing: 3.45pm Monday 21 February 2005

Press Briefing: 3.45pm Monday 21 February 2005

Briefing from the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman on: Anti Terror Law, President Bush/EU, Foreign Doctors in NHS, Hunting and Northern Ireland.

Anti Terror Law

Asked why the Leader of the House was being very nice to the Liberal Democrats and nasty to the Conservatives about the terror law and whether it was because the Government was prepared to compromise about the judicial review the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he could not get involved in party political matters. The situation remained as Charles Clarke had set out on Friday. There would be judicial involvement in this process but the important thing was to keep the ability to act quickly and flexibly and that we were consistent in the view that the use of intercept evidence just was not possible. There had been half a dozen reviews on whether intercept evidence should be used in court, but each time the conclusion was that this was just not possible without compromising sources. Asked why there were only two days for the debate given that there was a lot of concern in the chamber that only two days were being given over and the concern about a guillotine debate the PMOS said that it was a matter for business managers and the relevant department to consider. However, it was important that we recognised that because of the House of Lords ruling we needed to move quickly. We also recognised that this was a serious matter, but it was one that we could not keep deliberating on. We actually had to make decisions on it. The PMOS reminded journalists of the phrase Charles Clarke had used on Friday "the appropriate level of judicial involvement"; this reflected what we had originally set out. Asked to clarify that phrase the PMOS said people should wait for the Home Secretary's statement tomorrow.

Asked if the Home Secretary would be making any concessions to David Davis this evening the PMOS said people should let the discussions take place but the important thing to remember was the substance of the issue and that substance was we needed to have a range of measures to deal with people who it was believed posed a genuine threat to national security. We recognised that some people judged these to be extreme measures but in the case of relatively few people we did need extreme measures to deal with extreme circumstances.

President Bush/EU

Asked how helpful the Government thought it was for President Bush to come to build bridges with the EU and then to make threatening noises about Iran and Syria the PMOS said that he disagreed with that analysis. What the President had said was that Iran was not Iraq. We were still in the early stages of diplomacy. What he had said yesterday to German television was that he had heard these rumours about military action but they were not true. The important thing was that Iran should not divide Europe and the US in their determination that Iran should not develop their nuclear weapons capacity. We agreed with all of that. We also agreed with saying to Syria that it must stop its support for terrorist outrages in Israel. We also agreed, to reflect the positive side, with his emphasis on Palestine and Israel when he said a Palestinian State had to be viable, democratic and contiguous on the West Bank. As such we found much to agree with in President Bush's speech.

Foreign Doctors in NHS

Asked about reports running on the wires from Christian Aid saying that developing nations were spending millions training Doctors and nurses only to see them being poached by the NHS the PMOS said that he had not seen that report therefore it was not appropriate for him to respond directly about it. It was important that we helped developing countries train relevant personnel and that we helped provide facilities too. This was what we were doing with DfID. Asked if there was any evidence to suggest we were doing enough to make up those we were hiring the PMOS said he knew the Department of Health had already dealt with this therefore it was best if people spoke to them.

Hunting

Asked if anything could be expected from the Attorney General this week on hunting prosecutions the PMOS said that as the Attorney General had himself said on Friday he would be meeting the Director of Public Prosecutions and we should let that meeting take place first. What the weekend had showed was that it was possible to have hunting without unnecessary cruelty. It also showed there were still very strong feelings on either side of the issue and there were difficult issues about drawing the line and so on, but the Prime Minister continued to believe that with common sense there was a sensible way through this. On the whole people did show common sense at the weekend. Asked what the Prime Minister meant by a sensible way through the PMOS said we all knew feeling on this remained raw and very strong but the Prime Minister continued to hope that with common sense people would find a sensible way through and people needed time to reflect to do so. Asked if the Prime Minister was happy with what happened on the weekend the PMOS said that what was good at the weekend was that the predictions of conflict did not on the whole happen and that was sensible. The Prime Minister continued to believe that with a common sense approach there was a sensible way through this as people reflected on it.

Northern Ireland

Asked if it came as a surprise to the Prime Minister that he had been negotiating in Northern Ireland with the leaders of the IRA Army Council the PMOS said that as we had always said all the way through we believed that Sein Fein and the IRA were inextricably linked and that had obvious implications at leadership level. However, what was important was that we had also always been working on the basis that we were in the transition from conflict to peace. As the Prime Minister has said the time had now come for the IRA, the republican movement and Sein Fein to make a simple choice. That choice was either you continued with the paramilitary activity and criminality of the past or you chose the politics of the future. What you could not do was have it both ways; you could not continue to ride two horses. With the exception of Sein Fein Ireland was now united in this view, and the moment had come for Sein Fein and the IRA to make a choice. Suggested that the facts of the matter showed that that moment had gone, the PMOS said that what the facts showed were matters of deep concern. Equally what we should not ignore, whilst recognising fully, starkly, clearly, not trying to hide those current matters of deep concern, was that we should not lose sight of the progress that had been made since The Good Friday Agreement. That was what allowed us to put the question. But there had to be an answer to that question otherwise, as the Prime Minister said very carefully in the House a few weeks ago, everybody had to think about the implications of that. Therefore it was right to put that question to Sein Fein.

Asked if it was fair to suggest that those negotiations were based on spurious grounds if indeed during the course of those negotiations murders, very large bank robberies and other violence was being perpetrated, as we know now was the case, by the IRA and those doing the negotiating were senior figures in the Army Council of the IRA the PMOS said that was why it was right that we, the Irish Government and the other political parties from the north and south in Ireland, as well as the parties here have the right to ask very directly the question of Sein Fein and the IRA what choice were they going to make. This was the question that was put to them. What the Prime Minister had said very clearly was that there could be no prospect of a deal with republicans unless there was an end, a final end, to all paramilitary and criminal activity. In terms of the concerns posed by the robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney and so on there was every right to ask the question but equally given the progress made in the process since 1998, and before that too, it was right that we said to Sein Fein surely the end game was for a genuine transition and not this because if you think the end game was this then you were wrong.

Asked how this was different from previous "the moments" as it seemed there had been numerous very elastic moments before, the PMOS said that he disagreed with that analysis. We said at the time of the agreement that as the process went on the tests of an end of paramilitary activity would become more rigorous. At the time of the signing of the agreement the primary issue was an end to violence and decommissioning. The test now was an end to all paramilitary activity including criminality. Therefore the test had got more rigorous over time and rightly so. The test now as the Prime Minister said in his last meeting with the Taoiseach was now very simple. We have dealt with all the other matters of the agreement. The simple test now was whether the IRA was prepared to end paramilitary activity or not. If it was not then we all had to think very carefully about the implications of that. However, what was difficult now was that the question that was being posed was not just by the British Government and the Unionist parties but also by the Irish Government and all the other parties on the island of Ireland. We now had a situation where the rest of the parties were agreed that we had met our commitments and therefore the onus was solely on the republican leadership.

In answer to further questions about the recent activities of the IRA the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had not just condemned those actions he had also faced Sein Fein very clearly with the choice and it was important that we did not duck our responsibility to set out clearly and specifically to the IRA and to Sein Fein that simple choice. It had then been for other parties to respond. What was unprecedented was the way in which the other parties had responded posing that same question. At the same time however we had to recognise that other parties had not expressed their view in favour of exclusion. Therefore you had to ride this balance between setting out clearly the choice that the IRA had to make on the one hand and at the same time bringing the other parties in Ireland along with us, and that we were doing.


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