Transcript of Press Conference with Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern (6 April 2006)
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Transcript of Press Conference with Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister and Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Following the Announcement of the Recalling of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Armagh, (6 April 2006)
Question: Prime Minister, Taoiseach, welcome to Navan. Obviously with all processes, everything tends to slide towards the end, so it looks like November 24th may well be the key date in what you've announced today. Could I just explore a couple of things about the end part of this process? You say that if it doesn't work out you'll have a new era of British/Irish partnership, enhanced North/South co-operation. Is there a concern that that could destabilise things on the Unionist side of the house, particularly in relation to the Loyalist paramilitaries and those who signed up to the fine balance that you achieved in 1998? Is there a concern that Nationalists won't play ball with this new Assembly because they may think that they're getting what they want at the end of all of this? And finally, Prime Minister, everyone's always asking how long you're going to stay in the job. Can you give us a guarantee you'll be there for November 24th to oversee this?
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) Congratulations on renewed ingenuity in the way of putting this question to me and forgive me if I say I think we've had enough of that one. On the whole question of how we take this forward supposing it fails, actually I think all we're doing is just expressing the reality. Our responsibility is there if the parties can't reach agreement but I don't think anyone should be in any doubt at all, that is second best for everybody. There's nobody who's sensible, who's been trying to work this over the last few years, that doesn't recognise the importance of devolved institutions making the decisions in Northern Ireland. And there's no party I've talked to in the whole course of this process who hasn't preferred that to the two governments having to shoulder the responsibilities and that includes the two governments.
Question: Taoiseach, Prime Minister, when you spoke about dissidents and their attempts to undermine what you're attempting to achieve, do you believe that's who was behind the murder of Denis Donaldson? And secondly, a lot has been achieved on your watch. You've spoken about it. Is this the last throw of the dice as far as you're both concerned in terms of establishing a devolved government in Northern Ireland on your watch?
Taoiseach: (Bertie Ahern)Obviously we will do everything we can. The Minister for Justice who is here today, Mike McDougall, and the Garda have already made it absolutely clear that they will carry out an intensive investigation to try and find who perpetrated this terrible deed. We have no intelligence, no information, to indicate who that is and of it's as suggested retribution for some past event or some falling out along the way or whether it's some dissident we don't know and we'll do everything that we can to try to find that out. It's important to do so in any murder but I think it's important in this one also. As far as when we've set out the position I don't look at the end date in this. In fact I look at today, that this is the start of a process. I do not want to be here on 24th November thinking about another plan. What I want to do is far earlier than 24th November. I'd love it to happen very quickly but whatever way before that day that we will the restoration of accountable institutions in Northern Ireland with politicians back in the lead position. Of course because we're the custodians of the agreement and of the responsibility to bring that forward, if that doesn't work we have to take responsibility but it's not something that I want to really have to do because if the two governments were doing that and the politicians, as they are now only marginally involved in politics in Northern Ireland because there's no devolved government, then they'd be still in that position. And I'm an elected politician, the Prime Minister's an elected politician, so to marginalise the whole political system is the last thing we've spent almost a decade on this between our periods in opposition and government would achieve. I would say that's not much of a victory for anybody. So our whole effort is into seeing the politicians being in devolved, accountable arrangements as soon as possible and then all the other stranded agreements, which we're totally embedded to, we could get on with them as well. I mean that's what we want so after 24th November it's another issue but everything I do between now and 24th November is to see this strategy work. This is our strategy.
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) Obviously I agree with all of that but I have called this the ultimate decision and that's because there comes a time when people have got to decide is this the way they're going to run the affairs of Northern Ireland, indeed the island of Ireland, or not? And that's the decision people have got to come to now because you know, I think people in Northern Ireland frankly would find it absurd, just carry on with the Assembly members and so on with nothing actually happening. So I think this is the period in which people are going to have to make this decision really.
Question: Prime Minister, Taoiseach, is there not a danger that you could be accused here of giving the DUP what they wanted, a shadow Assembly? Do you believe Ian Paisley will eventually do the deal? And thirdly, just how important is policing in getting this issue solved, Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board?
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) Well first of all, I think what everybody wants is in fact the devolved institutions back up and running and there's no shadow concepts in this really. The important thing is, because it's in accordance with the agreement, is that it's going to be up to people to make this work within these next few months. And yes, I would say the issue of policing is extremely important. I mean there are all sorts of institutional questions but the most basic question is this. Look, whatever happens over the next few months, there will be people who try to disrupt this process. There may be acts of terrorism or there may be acts of criminal activity but there will be people who try to disrupt it or who act in contravention of the basic principles that are motivating all of us to take this forward. The important thing is though they're not allowed to do that and so the message - and this is why it's very important what the Taoiseach has just said about the Garda and the recent murder - whoever is responsible for anything that is against the law, we pursue with the full rigour of the law and we expect everyone to support us and work with us in that endeavour. Now that is the way to ensure that these people don't get a veto over the process because why should they have the veto over the democratic wishes of the majority of the people and I am sure the intentions and wishes of the main parties? So policing is important I think but it's as important for that sense that everyone agrees the police should be supported in doing their job.
Taoiseach: (Bertie Ahern) Can I just say on the shadow end, I don't think that argument can be honestly made. I agree with what the Prime Minister said on policing but the Assembly is being recalled on 15th May for a finite period with the responsibility of electing a First and Deputy First Minister and forming an Executive that has all the powers for that purpose, so it's not a shadow Assembly. If you have the powers to form the Executive, it's an Assembly with a mandate and a time-frame to prepare for government. So nothing could be more important.
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) Yes.
Question: What do you think Ian Paisley is going to do?
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) I can only go on what people say to us and my view is that Unionism, and that includes obviously the DUP, does recognise that if there is a commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, it is their duty and responsibility to share power with those of a different view about the future of Northern Ireland. And I equally am quite sure that Republicans believe that the only way forward now to pursue their particular objective of a united Ireland is through the context of the arrangement set out in the Good Friday Agreement. That's what I believe. So you know, the next few months will put this to the test. That's why I say you come to the point where you've got to make a decision in the end. I mean everyone can speculate about each other's good faith. I personally believe in the good faith of all the parties involved in this. The next few months will tell whether that is an overly optimistic view but we'll see.
Question: Taoiseach, can I just ask you, you said you don't want to be back here on November 24th looking for another plan. If you are on November 24th, how are the two governments going to implement the other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and what does that mean for politicians in the north? Do they just become defunct at that stage?
Taoiseach: (Bertie Ahern) Well again just preface that by saying I'm here because we've put a huge amount of effort into the start of the issue and the immediate family and my meeting in No10, meeting on the margins of the summit, so we've put a lot of time and effort on our colleagues and the talks that Peter Hain and Dermot Ahern have been carrying out since the commencement of the year to get this strategy and implement this strategy. And it's only if that doesn't work that then you have to move on. And the Prime Minister has said obviously you have to move on. And as I said in my own words, we couldn't come back to this unless the parties were to say at some future date into the future and maybe a long way into the future that they now agree and they'll come back to that. I think that's a very dangerous strategy to follow. So that's why I want all our effort on this particular issue. But, as I said, the Good Friday Agreement was voted for by the people. We're the custodians of it. The governments have a responsibility to implement the other aspects of it and we'd have to take that up but that's not what I'd like to do. The politicians in Northern Ireland would have lost their remit and that would be a matter to be dealt with then.
Question: With apologies to all of those focused on Northern Ireland, I wonder if I could ask you very briefly to turn your attention to Scotland this morning and tell us how concerned you are about the outbreak of bird flu in that part of the United Kingdom?
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) All I would say, is that the Scottish Executive and ourselves will take the measures that are appropriate, as indeed have been done in terms of cordoning off the area, and we will act according to the advice that we get. I do just emphasise one thing, it's very important people understand this. This is not a human to human virus. It is something that is transmitted to poultry. It is only if humans are in direct and very intensive contact with poultry that there is any risk involved. So it's just important people understand that. And as other countries have had to cope with this and take these preventative measures, we will do so. We act according to the best advice but I think it's very important that people recognise that essential truth about the nature of what has happened.
Question: Prime Minister, you said in a statement that you'd be giving detailed work on the British/Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary if there isn't agreement by November. Can you tell us how these partnership arrangements will be different from the current partnership arrangements that already operate between the two governments and what roles the two governments will be taking over that you are hoping that the devolved Assembly would take over if they get going between now and November?
Prime Minister: (Tony Blair) Well I think the important thing is we just have to work together on this in the coming weeks but I think if I can just say - and this is one reason why we've put emphasis on the positive desire to get the parties to agree this - this is not what we want to have achieved. So when it's appropriate, we may have to go into further detail about it but at the moment I think it's best just to say, if it's impossible to take this forward through the devolved institutions, we have a responsibility as governments to take it forward but that is not our preference and the work that we do on that hopefully will never be necessary.
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