» Thursday, June 29, 2006

Northern Ireland

Asked for some further specifics about the Prime Minister’s Northern Ireland visit today, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that we would be announcing a rough timetable of what we thought needed to happen over the summer up to November. The reason for that was we thought that real progress had been made in terms of setting up the Preparation Committee. We recognised that in this introductory period, it was always going to be difficult, but the reality was that if we were going to meet the November deadline, then we did need to up the pace. That meant we needed to hit the ground running in September. The IMC Report would be released in early October, and people would see the two Prime Ministers back shortly after that, as we were not going to leave it right until the very end. There were things that needed to be done, and the number of issues that needed to be resolved was quite small, but it was better to get them dealt with as quickly as possible. The PMOS said that we would see where we went from there.

Asked if there was anything in the DUP’s demeanour that might lead people to think there could be a deal, the PMOS said that it was not for him to give a commentary on people’s body language or demeanour. The PMOS said that the public’s patience with the process was wearing thin, and that was a statement of the obvious. Therefore, the November deadline was not something that had been imposed dogmatically by us, but rather, it was something that reflected, as the Prime Minister had said at Navan Fort, the reality of situation. We had seen considerable progress on the ground at White rock; this year it was peaceful, and last year it was not. We had seen progress in setting up the Preparation Committee, in ending IRA activity and the decommissioning of weapons, as the IMC and the IICD had shown. Of course, there was further progress to be made, but the reality was, the number of issues to be resolved was relatively small, therefore, it was a matter of will. The Prime Minister had just met all the children from the Ballymena schools who were asking him questions about the future of education. Those were questions which should be resolved by people sitting in Northern Ireland, rather than people whose homes were in Westminster. Therefore, it was a question of whether Northern Irish politicians believed that their remaining differences were bigger than the chance to make decision for themselves. The PMOS said that if we did not do it this time, the honest assessment could be that it could be another generation before we were ready to do it again.

Asked further about the school children, the PMOS said that they were a mixture of secondary and grammar schools from the Ballymena area, reflecting both sides of the divide. They had come together after the murder of Michael McIlveen, and they had written to us asking to meet the Prime Minister, and this was the perfect opportunity, given the nature of the anti-sectarian campaign, it was right to meet them.

Asked what was the Government going to do, the PMOS said that we were not in Northern Ireland today to browbeat people, or to single out one party. Progress still had to be made across the board on issues such as policing, as well as politically. The key question that had to be asked was: was progress more likely to be made with a devolved government in Northern Ireland in which local politicians met, talked and made decisions regularly about issues such as education, health water rates, etc? Or without that, did we run the risk of a stalemate that we had seen in the past, such as in the 1980s, which people knew had an impact on a political generation and which stopped politics for a considerable time in any meaningful way? That was the question. Was this generation of political leaders who had done so much to help end the conflict going to take the final step and actually finally resolve the matter?

Asked what would Plan B be if Plan A failed, the PMOS said that people should be realistic about it. Work on Plan B quite rightly continued, because it was the job of governments to think what they would do if their Plan A failed. However, Plan A was by the far the preference of the British Government, and also of the Irish Government. What we were not going to do, however was to talk about Plan B, as people knew as well, if we talked about Plan B, all the focus would be on that, rather than our preferred outcome of Plan A. What we wanted to see was local politicians making local decisions, and anything else was second best by a long, long way.

Asked further about the deal, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister believed that there was the basis for a deal by November. This was always going to be difficult setting up the Preparation Committee, and we were always going to go through a choppy period, given the experience of the past two years. The PMOS said that we should look at what we had experienced in the last few years, as we had seen the most significant statement by the IRA. We had also seen IMC reports which said that the IRA was living up to that statement. We had seen the DUP and other parties join in a committee, which included Sinn Fein, to start preparations. There was the basis for a deal there, but we did need to up that pace. We did need to recognise that the November deadline was not a matter of Government imposing a dogmatic deadline, but rather, it was a reflection of the public’s patience wearing thin with this process. The PMOS said that the days when Northern Irish politics was what everybody wanted to know about were fading. It was a tough fight to get politics onto local programmes and local papers, and if people looked at local media, that was reflected there. That was ultimately not good for local parties. Local people wanted to see those local parties delivering on the themes that they thought were important. That included education, health, rates etc, and if people did not believe that local politicians in the near future were going to deliver on those matter, then it was hardly surprising that they lost patience. That was why November was put as a deadline.

Asked about the programme of events, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach would meet all the parties, starting with the DUP, Sinn Fein and then in order of size. There would then be a round up meeting in which the two Prime Ministers would sum up their overall reflections on the day.

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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