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Press Briefing by Prime Minister's Official Spokesman, 21 October 2003

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Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Press Briefing by Prime Minister's Official Spokesman,
Downing Street, London, 21 October 2003



The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be travelling to Northern Ireland this morning. As things stood, he would have lunch and a meeting with the Taoiseach, followed by a press event at some point this afternoon. He hoped to return in time for his weekly Audience with the Queen this evening. The PMOS reminded journalists of our announcement this morning that elections would be held in Northern Ireland on 26 November. What we were seeing today was the unfolding of an agreed sequence of events. However, it was important to wait for it to conclude before judging the outcome.

Asked if we were expecting the sequence of events to be over by the end of the day, the PMOS said that that was our expectation. In the first instance, the Prime Minister was travelling to Northern Ireland to get a readout from General John de Chastelain. What made this occasion different from previous moments during the peace process was the fact that it was being driven by the parties, with the two Governments playing a supporting role. There had been no Weston Park-style 'hot-housing', and nor had there been any grandstanding in recent weeks. What we had seen was high-quality engagement between the parties. We had always maintained that confidence between them was the lifeblood of the political process in Northern Ireland. Without it, it inevitably became difficult to make progress. There had been a very positive engagement by the parties, particularly over the last few weeks. Potentially this could be the most significant day in the Northern Ireland peace process since the Good Friday Agreement. We would have to wait and see how today panned out.

Asked if there was an expectation that there would be an 'act of completion' by the end of today, the PMOS said he did not think it would be helpful to try to pre-judge what might happen today. Let the sequence of events follow through and then we could talk about it. Pressed as to whether the sequence of events included an act of decommissioning, the PMOS said that it was important to wait and see what General John de Chastelain had to say about the matter. He would be reporting to the Prime Minister shortly.

Asked when it had been decided that the sequence of events would unfold today, the PMOS said that this was something towards which everyone had been working for some considerable time. In politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. Pressed further, the PMOS said that it was not a question of picking a day at random. It depended on when - and whether - things came together. That had happened in recent days after the discussions in the last few weeks.

Questioned about the Prime Minister's personal involvement in today's events, the PMOS said that he had spoken to the Taoiseach yesterday and had met David Trimble and Gerry Adams in Downing Street last Monday. He had put enormous effort into the process from the word go. However, what was qualitatively different about today was the fact that it was the parties themselves which had been driving the process forward without the two Governments having to act as interlocutors in the way they usually did. It was up to the parties to have a shared confidence to progress and move forward, and it appeared to be that that was what they had done. The Government had obligations, but this was an Agreement between the parties.

Asked if we were happy with the language being used by the Republicans and whether the Prime Minister was confident that the war was now over, the PMOS said that he understood why he was being asked these questions. However, it was still relatively early on in a day which would see a lot of activity. It was worth waiting for events to unfold. Asked if the Prime Minister was confident that the announcement of elections would lead to a stable power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland, the PMOS said that everyone had been working towards establishing permanent institutions and a permanent peace. While it was important to exercise a little patience, it was clear that today was potentially a very important day. In answer to further questions, the PMOS pointed out that this was coming after what everybody would acknowledge had been one of the quietest summers in Northern Ireland for many years. In addition, a shadow Monitoring Commission had been set up which would ensure that all the parties met their obligations. Put to him that Gerry Adams had said this morning that the Monitoring Commission was a breach of the Good Friday Agreement because it gave the power of sanction to a British Minister who had no electoral mandate in Northern Ireland, the PMOS repeated that it was important to wait and see how the rest of the day developed. The Prime Minister was going to Northern Ireland this morning after a period of intense behind-the-scenes discussions. We now had an election date and there would be further activity during the course of the day. He encouraged journalists to use the Prime Minister's words this afternoon rather than his.

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