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Transcript of Press Conference with Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, on Developments in the Peace Process, Farmleigh, Dublin, (6 May 2003)
Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh
Transcript of Press Conference with Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), and Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, on Developments in the Peace Process, Farmleigh, Dublin, (6 May 2003)
Can I first of all say that we are very pleased that Prime Minister Blair is here today on a special occasion for him, but a special occasion to be in Farmleigh, it is his first visit, and to welcome back the Secretary of State as well.
We have had I think a very good constructive meeting which focused on obviously the recent developments, and how we can now make progress. The Prime Minister and I and our colleagues are absolutely determined that we see the complete and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and it is not with us a policy option, it is the will of the people in both parts of the island, democratically endorsed in the May 1998 referendum. Last week we had a temporary set-back to our efforts. However, the agreement remains the template for our work and we will continue that work uninterrupted. I have made it clear that progress has been made in recent weeks by the Republican Movement, but it is essential, as I stated last week, that we have clarity and that clarity has been so much in the focus of the attention of recent weeks. But we welcome, and would welcome, the unambiguous response from the IRA which makes clear that there will be a definitive end to all paramilitary activity. But we are determined to move on with the implementation of the joint declaration insofar as we can, to deal with the issues of criminal justice, of policing issues, of security normalisation, of quality issues, and of course the implementation of the independence monitoring body. We have spent in this phase of our work 6 or 7 months working towards the full implementation of all aspects of the agreement, and the Joint Declaration which we both agreed and published on Thursday is a full audit of the delivery of the agreement and a comprehensive blueprint for the implementation of all the outstanding aspects to it. And the Joint Declaration following the meeting today, we confirm it is our shared agenda for the immediate and sustained action. Some of its provisions are explicitly linked to acts of completion by others, so obviously we can't implement those just now. We continue to work to create the political context which allows for those undertakings to be realised, and hopefully we will get to that position sooner rather than later. But many of the provisions of the Joint Declaration are not linked to acts of completion by others, they derive from the agreement and stand on their own terms, and we are determined to proceed with the implementation of these various commitments, some of them that I have just mentioned. And the work will be taken forward by the two governments, and Minister Cowan, Secretary of State Murphy and our colleagues will get working on some aspects of those and we will continue to both engage with the parties and to move on as fast as we can.
We are conscious, and just to repeat again what I said last week, that the absence of trust and confidence is a the core of the present difficulties in the process and this deficit relates both to continued paramilitarism and the operation of inclusive institutions, and the parties themselves must make a contribution by giving each other reassurances that are needed to allow people to move forward together. So we hope that the parties will use the coming period to advance their dialogue with a view to rebuilding trust and confidence. The Prime Minister and I would also appeal to the parties and those in the community in positions of leadership to use their influence to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland enjoy a summer free from trouble and tension. That in itself would be a major contribution to achieving a restored climate of trust and confidence that we can build on into the early autumn.
Finally I wish to record my appreciation to you, Prime Minister, to your outstanding personal commitment to this process over the last six years. We have made an enormous amount of progress and we will continue to make that progress in the months ahead. And the fact that you have taken time from what is a milestone birthday to be here today is a further reflection to the people of this island of your undiminished commitment, and I and my government colleagues all, bar one that you met today, appreciate that commitment and I know all Irish people appreciate that as well.
Thank you Taoiseach. First of all can I say how pleased I am to be here in Ireland and to meet not just the Taoiseach but also the members of the Irish Cabinet who I very much enjoyed meeting. Thank you for your kindness and your hospitality, and to say that whatever the differences about the decisions that we took last week, we are absolutely united and determined to work together to move this process forward. And the working relationship we have had with the Irish government over the past few years has been remarkable and a remarkable testament actually to the changed relations between our two countries, and I know that we are going to ensure that that continues over the coming months.
Where do we go from here? Well first of all it is important obviously that we go back into intensive dialogue and discussion with the parties, and Brian Cowan and Paul Murphy are going to take this forward in the first instance and they have both worked heroically over the past few weeks to do this and we know that they will do their very best to take it forward. Secondly, I think it is important that the parties themselves have a proper dialogue and discussion together. It is always easier if they can resolve some of their problems and issues together. And thirdly, we know that we will come back to the two central questions which are necessary for there to be confidence and trust between the main political parties in Northern Ireland, and that is the issue of the complete end to paramilitary activity, which is inconsistent with the Good Friday agreement, and also to ensure that the institutions when we do get them back up and running again are secure and are able to be sustained because that is important for everybody in Northern Ireland. And I know, however difficult it is, the will exists to overcome the obstacles that remain, because we have made enormous progress and many of the most difficult issues to do with policing and criminal justice and so on, these issues have been resolved, but we have to make sure both that the institutions are secure, and as a necessary part of that, a vital part of that, that there can't be any ambiguity about it, there has to be a complete end to paramilitary activity.
It is important however that in the meantime we carry on with what we can do, and the Joint Declaration contains a number of commitments that we can implement, and should implement, because they are part of the essential rights of the citizen in Northern Ireland, issues to do with equality, human rights and equality and human rights for all the people in Northern Ireland, which is one reason again why paramilitary activity is completely inconsistent with basic human rights for people; issues to do with the Irish language, on criminal justice, on policing, on normalisation where that is not conditional on acts of completion. Now we would like to go far further on normalisation. We set out in the Joint Declaration what was effectively a two year programme completely to normalise the situation in Northern Ireland. Now to be able to do all of that is dependent on undertakings and commitments elsewhere. But so far as we can make progress on that, even without those undertakings, we will do so, consistent with the proper protection of people in Northern Ireland. And it is important also that we ensure that we are making progress on those other issues which are necessary to have trust and confidence for people in Northern Ireland, and that means the independent monitoring body, including the necessary legislation.
So there is a lot that we can do to put ourselves in the condition when we do get clear and unequivocal answers to be able to move this whole process forward. Because however frustrating it is to be at this present impasse, the fact is we have come an enormously long way. And one other thing that I want to say and make very clear, sometimes there are people who talk about renegotiating the Good Friday Agreement. There is going to be no renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. That is the agreement, that is the only agreement upon which there is any possibility of getting the consensus to move Northern Ireland forward, and it isn't going to change. Likewise in relation to the Joint Declaration, the two governments have come to a position, we have covered all the areas we needed to cover. It is, as I think people have seen, which is why we published it, it is a very comprehensive both assessment and plan for implementation of all the remaining aspects that the two governments can properly effect.
So we have the Good Friday Agreement, we have the Joint Declaration, we know what the cause of the present impasse is, we have got to work, redouble our efforts to overcome it. In the end I remain confident that we will, and I remain confident that we will because ultimately I believe that when people from whatever part of the community they come from in Northern Ireland take a step back and analyse the situation, they will realise that the benefits in Northern Ireland over the past few years have been immense, and that the most foolish thing we could possibly do for the future is to throw those benefits away. So far as we are concerned, we will make every effort, bend all our efforts to ensuring that that does not happen. What we have achieved in Northern Ireland, despite the difficulties, is precious and it is too precious to lose.
Taoiseach, Prime Minister Blair, we know the bottom lines you have established for Sinn Fein and the Republican Movement, but what can you do to guarantee that the Ulster Unionist Party will support the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in full, this at a time when prominent Ulster Unionists are calling your Joint Declaration a Sinn Fein Charter?
Well Tommy, as far as we are concerned, the Joint Declaration is a summary of what we have been working on for the last five years in the Good Friday Agreement. We looked at all of the outstanding aspects. Every party had an opportunity to put forward their position, and they all did, and at the end of the day, having done that, we had the talks that Paul and Brian and our colleagues were working on in their meetings and we had directly identified a whole range of issues. And after all of that we came down to three points, and then effectively we came down to one that was undecided by the Republicans, we know what that was, the end to paramilitary activity, that it would not occur, it would stop and cease and be no more; and on the other side we had stability of the institutions. So the reply to your question is on the two outstanding issues it has to be absolutely clear, there is clarity on both sides, clarity that paramilitary activity does not occur, and clarity that the institutions will be set up and that they get back running and they function and they will not be interfered with again. If there is a difficulty which applies to everybody, that difficulty is in the independent monitoring group, and that is not just for one group, that is for any party. That is the position and we won't finish our work until we get certainty on those two points.
That is absolutely right, and first of all it is absurd to call the Joint Declaration a charter for any particular political party, it is the implementation of the undertakings, it provides equality and justice, sorts out the remaining issues on policing and criminal justice, but also makes it clear there has to be a complete end to paramilitary activity, and there is a verification, an independent monitoring process, in order to ensure that that happens and ensure that all the various commitments given by people are adhered to. So the Joint Declaration in our view represents a fair settlement and there is no doubt at all about it, if the clear undertakings can be given on the paramilitary activity so that the Unionist community is sure that that activity ends when they go into government, then the security of the institutions is then guaranteed and people can get back into government and get working again. It is not a complex situation, it is a very simple deal - an end to the paramilitary activity and that should mean the security of the institutions.
Prime Minister, is it not the case that in the current impasse, in spite of your wish to hold elections in the autumn, that will be impossible. And is it not the case really that you are looking at Plan B of going ahead with what you can, but without the institutions?
No. Obviously what we are trying to do is to say to people we are not having the present impasse as a reason for denying people basic rights that they have, and also it is important that we put all the measures in place, including the legislation on independent monitoring, so that when the institutions are back up and running again, we are ready to move forward. But look, we came very, very, close to getting the right agreement here and we have resolved all the outstanding issues, so we have made a fantastic amount of progress, and in the end it depends on the will of the parties - do they really want to move this thing forward or not? And the only basis that can happen is the complete end to paramilitary activity in circumstances where one of the political parties wants to be in government, and is likely to be in government, and is still connected with a paramilitary organisation. Now I don't think it is a very complicated situation, and what happened is in the end, in the swirl of an election campaign, it was impossible to get this bolted down in a satisfactory way, but we have got to carry on doing it, it is not going to change, we can come back to it in days, or weeks, or months, it is still going to be the same issues. And my own judgement about this is that this is a serious problem, there is no doubt about that at all, but in the end the will exists to overcome it, and I think it will be overcome.
Could you imagine for a moment that I am a citizen of Northern Ireland and I am anxious to vote in an election, because it is my democratic right. I would have applauded your stance taken last week in which you appeal to the British Prime Minister to allow the election to go ahead. Can you tell us now what is my position? I am anxious to register my democratic vote, have you secured any commitments from the British Prime Minister about when an election might take place? And obviously Prime Minister Blair if you have any comment to make about that I would be delighted to hear.
Mark, you know the Irish government's position, we didn't want a postponement of the election, that was last week, and now we have to move on and get the matters outstanding agreed so that we can have an election. The Prime Minister stated last week that he would have liked that to be a very short time, he would have liked to move ahead in a matter of weeks but because of the marching season and because of the summer period it was felt that that wasn't feasible, it was in the early autumn, that was what we have discussed today. But hopefully if we can deal with the outstanding issues, that won't take until the autumn, if people are in a position to talk to us about the ending of paramilitary activity and getting to where we almost got to, it wasn't the position that we made no progress, we started a good way back and we moved through a lot of language, a lot of clarification, but we didn't get the full position. If we can get that remaining piece, it took us 3 weeks to get as far as we got of intensive discussions following a six month period, if we can get to that then we can be making our plans to get back to the election. We want to see the election as quickly as possible, that was what was agreed today and we are very clear on that. And on the other side of it I also want to hear that we get to that position, that we will not continue to be where we have been for the last 5 years, that we all feel very satisfied when we get the institutions set up, and as soon as we have celebrated the setting up of them, we start moaning the fact that they are coming down again. So we want to end that, we can't keep on going in that position, so they are the two issues that are outstanding, one rests with David Trimble and one rests with Gerry Adams and their respective people. And Gerry Adams will say that he will use his best endeavours, and David Trimble has to deal with his party, but they are the two outstanding issues and we are ready to get on with it as soon as possible, and the assurance of the Prime Minister to me is the quicker the better, and that is his position.
You have referred to a peaceful tension-free summer in Northern Ireland would help the process, but the summer is quite often a very dangerous time and we have had explosive devices defused in both Belfast and Dublin and there are lots of maligned influences, if you like, waiting in the wings to fill this political vacuum. How do you persuade people that there is not a political vacuum and that there is actually a hope of making further progress in all this, what is going to be visible?
The best way of persuading people that the extremists, who are a small minority and who want to wreck this agreement should not fill the vacuum, is to point to what this agreement has already achieved, and it may be a sort of birthday optimism on my part, in which case I apologise, but you know if you take a step back and look at what we have achieved in Northern Ireland over the past few years, it is remarkable. And to people who say things can never change, things have already changed significantly. I remember a time when the main political parties in Northern Ireland would barely speak to each other, never mind sit down in a room and try and work out their differences. There was a time not so very long ago when the British and Irish governments didn't have anything like the closeness of the relationship we have today, which is not just a relationship now about Northern Ireland, but is about working together in Europe and broader economic issues as well. You know things can change, and what we have done in Northern Ireland is still remarkable and we have resolved virtually everything, but it comes back to the issue of can we get that last bit of trust and confidence there so that one side accepts the fact that they can't sit in government and still have paramilitary activity, it just doesn't wash with democratic politics; and the other side accepts that if they are prepared to make that historic break then they are prepared to give then the proper guarantees and assurances about the security of the democratic institutions. That is the best thing that we can do. And in the end if we let this small number of extremists dislocate this process, we will betray our own future, and we are not going to allow that to happen.