» Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Northern Ireland

Asked about the latest round of talks on Northern Ireland, the PMOS said that this week would see preliminary discussions taking place between the Secretary of State and the local parties on a bilateral basis, leading to intensive talks at Leeds Castle between 16 and 18 September. The aim was to come up with a deal. We believed that the parties had engaged seriously since the Assembly elections in preparing the ground for such a situation and that it was worth going for a deal rather than delaying the process. As anyone who had been following what people on both sides had been saying over the summer would recognise, there was a common agenda on the devolution of policing and how to handle the timescale of such issues as decommissioning and bringing paramilitarism to an end. These were now being openly discussed between the parties in a way which would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Today was the tenth anniversary of the IRA ceasefire. We had clearly come a long way since then. That said, we had yet to complete the journey. Both President Clinton and Senator Clinton had underlined during their visit to Northern Ireland last week that delay would only result in a political vacuum, which was clearly a very dangerous thing.

Asked for a reaction Mark Durkan’s concern that there was too much compromise was being made to benefit the extreme end of Northern Ireland politics at the expense of the moderates, the PMOS said he did not think it would it would be helpful to comment directly on what Mr Durkan had said. However, it was important to recognise the very clear criteria which the Prime Minister had set down in a speech in Belfast two years ago in which he had underlined that any deal would have to result in a complete end to all forms of paramilitarism and to a genuine inclusive democratic Government. That was a goal towards which the SDLP had played a very constructive role in helping to achieve. It was true that different parties would have different approaches to the talks. However, the important point was that there was a shared agenda. Asked if he would agree that the SDLP had been ‘comprehensively shafted’ by political forces, despite the role it had played, the PMOS said that it wasn’t his job to comment on election results. As we had said at the time, electoral support and electoral responsibility went hand in hand. That principle applied to all sides.

Asked if it remained the Prime Minister’s intention to call for new elections in Northern Ireland should the talks at Leeds Castle fail, the PMOS said that it was important to be clear what the Prime Minister had actually said. He had simply been making the point that there was no reason to delay the process and that we would sit down and see if a deal could be reached. If that was not possible, then that was clearly something on which we would have to reflect. However, at the moment we were focussing all our energy and attention on achieving a deal.

Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news

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