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1996 - Mr Major’s Briefing in London

Below is the text of Mr Major’s on the record briefing, held in London on 25th September 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

I don't want to make a long introductory series of remarks. Just very briefly, there are just 2 or 3 things that seem to me to be quite important at the moment. Very important that the peace process continues. I remain as committed to it as I was in the past. Underneath the surface oratory quite a lot is happening, a lot still has yet to happen, and it is very important that it does. We will continue to give it all the support we can. I will no doubt enlarge on that in any questions, if you wish me to. Not a helpful occurrence, the huge potential explosion that didn't take place. We have been in no doubt for some time that the IRA were planning future atrocities. This would have been a very big one, it didn't take place, I think we can all be thankful for that. Thirdly, the European Summit approaches with the Irish Presidency, clearly a lot of very important European issues about, not just the preparation for the Inter-governmental Conference, though that certainly is important, also the continuing work that is proceeding towards the possibility of monetary union at a later stage, and also of course a range of other problems - working time directive, beef, fishing and a whole series of other things.

If I may say so, the Presidency of the European Union is always a mixed blessing for the country that has the privilege to hold it. I daresay that John Bruton and his colleagues are discovering that, just as all his predecessors have in the past. It is a tough old job being President of the European Union for 6 months, and everyone takes it up with huge enthusiasm and in my experience usually lays it down with equally huge enthusiasm 6 months later. So I look forward to seeing my European colleagues in Dublin twice - once on 5 October for an informal meeting I believe, though the agenda is not yet finally determined, as I understand it; and then for the normal 6 monthly meeting at the end of the year.

QUESTION (Sunday Tribune):

Prime Minister, there was that incident in London that you said was not very helpful, has it been clarified yet as to whether the person who was shot dead was armed?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it will be a matter for the Coroner. The Police undertook the action, the incident occurred, I don't know what happened. The Coroner will examine that and there will be a subsequent investigation but I don't know the details of it yet. I don't know all the details of the police investigation yet, no doubt that will come out subsequently.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] so many explosives and arms [indistinct].

PRIME MINISTER:

Some things self-evidently are revealed. It self-evidently reveals the fact that the IRA were perfectly prepared to continue violence on the mainland, and not only continue violence on the mainland but continue violence on a very large scale indeed - 8 to 10 tons of explosives. That dwarfs anything we have seen before. This was clearly, whatever it was going to be, one or more for all we know, one or more very large incidents. Having said that, it is difficult to know what the psychology of the IRA is. I suspect there are divisions of opinion, quite sharp divisions of opinion, within the IRA as to the right way to proceed. There will be those, I am sure, who are arguing that if you commit another outrage it will force the British Government into concessions. That has been a standard piece of Republican - I mean Republican in the sense of IRA Republican - thinking for a very long time. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way any British Government, not just this one, would respond, but it is the way they think. And so very possibly they were thinking that it would put pressure on us. It would have done immense damage to the peace process if that had occurred, and would have destroyed any shred of credibility that remained amongst the leadership of Sinn Fein. I am very disappointed that Sinn Fein have not unequivocally denounced what happened, I think it would have been extremely helpful if they had.

At some stage Sinn Fein are going to have to make it clear precisely what their position is: either they are the political wing of the IRA, in which case there is no real role for them as people who will sanction violence; or they have got to denounce the IRA and say we are a democratic political party, in which case they are welcome at the negotiating table to argue their views with the DUP, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the others. I hope they will prove to be a political party. I have to say, they haven't proved it yet. And a failure to denounce what undoubtedly would have been an atrocity, leading to mass murder, in unequivocal terms is pretty disappointed to put it mildly.

QUESTION (Daily Correspondent, Dublin):

As a supplementary to what you said about atrocities not influencing the British Government, the public perception throughout Ireland is that the Canary Wharf bombing did in fact influence you into taking action, action that people felt had been very slow in coming before that?

PRIME MINISTER:

That may be the perception, because that is the way people choose to think and act. I can tell you, sitting here, the only thing atrocities do as far as I am concerned is make me dig my heels in more against the people who commit the atrocities. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the British character, and I think the Northern Irish character, I don't mean it isn't the case for the southern Irish character, I don't know that quite so well, but the Northern Irish character to believe that we would actually respond in that fashion. I know it is something that the IRA believe, that is self-evident to anyone who has made even a cursory study of them, but it is just flatly wrong. Canary Wharf did not influence the government's decisions at all. Those sort of atrocities often, if they have any influence at all, have a malign influence in holding back moves that might otherwise have been taken towards rapprochement and proper dialogue. That is the only impact it has and it is a wholly negative impact. It would not have a positive impact of encouraging the British government into constructive dialogue, quite the reverse.

QUESTION:

There is another perception which is that for 17 months up to the Canary Wharf bombing the British Government perhaps acted too slowly in response to the initial ceasefire. How do you respond to that now, looking back, and possibly looking forward?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will tell you exactly how I respond to it. I genuinely say to you it is a wrong perception. It has always seemed apparent to me that if you were going to have these negotiations continue, they cannot continue down a track in which one side seems to be winning every element of the argument and the other side seems to be losing. And there was a straight-forward and blunt disagreement between two effective sides of the negotiating table, one side saying we will only decommission at the end of the talks, and the other side saying we will only begin the talks if you decommission before the talks begin. Aft immense amount of work went into trying to find a way through that. It was apparent at the beginning that at the end of a long amount of discussion it was very likely that the way through would have to be decommissioning in parallel with talks. The Mitchell Commission was established, an independent look was taken, and they indeed ratified what I expected would be the case when they looked at it, and that is the only way it is going to come forward. But what caused the delay was the fact that if one had proceeded without having that particular element of the argument in play, the talks would have got nowhere because we would have called the talks and one side or the other would not have been prepared to talk because there would have been conditions laid on the table that the other side simply could not meet. And that is the fundamental reality that we had to face during that long period.

QUESTION:

But was that pragmatic?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is pragmatic, I am a pragmatist on some issues. I am a pragmatist about finding a way that will end the murder and mayhem that we have seen in Northern Ireland. It is important to me that people realise that this is an issue that has been, and is, and will remain for as long as I sit in Downing Street, a matter at the top of the British government's agenda.

I don't think what happens in Northern Ireland is tolerable. If it had been happening in Surrey or Sussex I wouldn't have tolerated it, couldn't have tolerated it, why should I tolerate it in Northern Ireland, I can't. That is why I will pursue these talks. But the belief that you can do it, and reach a peace and a settlement that will last to provide both peace and peace of mind in Northern Ireland, without actually getting a negotiated settlement is folly. So you have got to create the conditions for a negotiation and that is very painful and difficult when you have competing views asking for pre-conditions that the other side can't meet, and it is a lengthy business that takes a lot of time. I said at the beginning that it would often be 2 steps forward and 1 back, 2 forward and 1 back, and so it has proved. The important point is that we keep taking the steps forward.

QUESTION:

You mentioned that had the bomb gone off it would have caused immense damage to the peace process. How do you respond to the view that is being expressed, not just by the media but by politicians as well, that if it is discovered that the alleged IRA volunteer was unarmed, that that will do damage to the process?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not going to comment on something I know nothing about at this stage, and I think it would be extremely unwise of me to do so. Let us wait and see what happened, and why it happened, and then we can make a proper judgment of it. What we do know is that there was a huge amount of explosives which presumably wasn't there for any purpose other than to be used. We do know that. Beyond that the information is not yet clear and our system of law requires that there is a Coroner's Inquiry and a proper investigation. When we have had the inquiry and the investigation, then would be the time for the government to respond, not in advance of the inquiry and the information. So I fear there is nothing I am going to say about that until I have the information, but at the moment I don't have that.

QUESTION:

What is your personal assessment of Gerry Adams?

PRIME MINISTER:

I find it difficult to make a judgment of Gerry Adams. He talks of his wish for peace and yet he doesn't denounce atrocities that operate against peace. He has indicated on a number of occasions that he is moving in a particular direction, he hasn't done so. What I don't know is whether he is a man who wants to move in that direction but is constrained by his membership, or whether he is deliberately seeking a public relations posture that does not reflect his real views. It is difficult to know precisely.

What I can say is that I do think that he could be a good deal more forward and constructive in trying to carry the peace process forward and I hope he will be so. But I don't think my personal view of Gerry Adams is - well I won't continue with that sentence, I will leave it there.

QUESTION:

What does this mean, I am quoting from Sir Patrick Mayhew's speech today, in which he says that the restoration of the ceasefire, [indistinct] to the Mitchell principles, and then it says and entrusting to the issue of decommissioning. What does that mean, to the issue of decommissioning?

PRIME MINISTER:

It means exactly what it says, that there has got to be constructive discussion about how one actually decommissions the weapons. What we have not said, not because it wouldn't be desirable but because it wouldn't be deliverable, is that the weapons should be entirely decommissioned before Sinn Fein enter the discussions, the talks. What we have said is that during the currency of the talks there has got to be progressive decommissioning in order to build confidence on both sides. And don't think, unless we have a parallel track like that operating, that we will get to the end of the talks.

And what has been the missing ingredient for so long in this whole sorry affair is any element of trust between the representatives of the various communities. Progress in the talks, and decommissioning, would add an element of trust and confidence that this could be carried through to a conclusion that we haven't previously seen. And I hope that is the direction that we can go in. If we don't move in that direction then I think the prospects for the talks are grim.

QUESTION:

Something you said earlier echoes something that the Secretary of State said this morning, and that is that progress is being made even if it is not being seen. Not only is it not the public perception that progress is not being made, many of the politicians taking part in the talks, and particularly Seamus Mallon has said that in fact the Unionists are stalling and holding them up. Can you give us any indication which shows that progress is being made and indeed would explain the Taoiseach's optimism about what is happening at the moment, because it is certainly not apparent to anyone else?

PRIME MINISTER:

If one wanted an analogy for the talks I suppose you could think of a duck on the water, not a lot seems to be happening on the surface but the animal is paddling like hell beneath it. And there is a certain amount of that going on.

There is more contact between the two sides in private, between the Unionists and the Nationalists in private; there is a much greater understanding between the two sides; I think there is a greater appreciation of what I called a moment ago the parallel process of decommissioning. All of those are happening under the surface. One of the things that bedevils it of course is that often public statements are made in order to bolster a particular position and as part of the negotiating process, which give the impression that no progress is being made at all. And progress is being made, not as fast as I would wish, but I think progress is being made.

QUESTION:

In what areas, other than perhaps the breakdown and the animosity that was there previously between the SDLP and the Unionists, in what areas is there further progress because the one particular issue that we thought we would see reaffirmed by September, September was the date, was the whole question of a format for decommissioning. We know that people are meeting each other certainly, and we know that people are making statements in public, but we have had no evidence to support the claim that these are purely public statements and that progress is being made. So what evidence is there?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you will have to wait. I am not going to outline the information that has come to me of what has emerged from some of these private contacts, I don't think it would be productive to the peace process to do so. I can only say to you that I think the atmosphere has improved quite significantly over the last few weeks, I am not saying to you that all is roses, self-evidently not, you know that and I. know that and everybody involved with it knows that. But the atmosphere has noticeably improved and many of the hurdles that people wondered whether we would get over just a few months ago have been got over. Would we actually get up to the elections? Would people take part? Would the forum be established? Would anyone turn up? Would anybody sign up to the Mitchell principles? All those things, one by one, all of them have had their little dramas of one sort or another - well not little, in many cases quite big dramas - all of them have had their dramas but one by one we have overcome those points. And you could actually go back over much of the last 5 years and see the same thing. The frustration one has is really two-fold: firstly that it is taking so long; and secondly that from time to time there is a set-back. Both of those I share the frustration very personally that all of you must share reporting it, but that the progress has been made is undeniable and I think it is still happening and I think it has a good deal further to go.

QUESTION:

Do you think that John Cree contributed to the distrust that has been established between the two communities and that that had any impact on the progress of the peace talks?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is no doubt that there was a great deal of fuss after John Cree, absolutely no doubt. There was a great deal of fuss on both sides of the sectarian divide after John Cree, it would be absurd not to say that that wasn't the case, it was, and there was plenty of blame to spread around in every direction. The point is the atmosphere has lightened a good deal since then, I said there would be occasional set-backs, that was a set-back, don't expect me to say it wasn't, it was.

QUESTION (Irish Times):

One of the perceptions in Ireland is that Mr Bruton is doing more to lean on Nationalists, Republicans, than you are doing in leaning on the Unionists, and in fact the idea that the Unionists are holding things up, are not being persuaded is quite widely spread. There is also a feeling that they can be persuaded, they can be pushed?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is a false perception. I don't doubt that John Bruton is encouraging people to move. I have regular discussions with John and I know how strongly he feels about this issue, he knows how strongly I feel about it. Anybody who seriously thinks haven't used all the influence I have to encourage people to move forward into this process, hasn't examined what has happened in this process over the last few years. So people may have that perception. But I suppose there are many things you learn sitting in this particular chair and one of them is that there is often quite a gap between perception and reality.

QUESTION:

The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein maintain, at least in public, that if they were sure of the how and the when of decommissioning then it might be possible to have a ceasefire and Sinn Fein go into talks, because Sinn Fein's fear is that they will be sucked into talks and get nothing.

PRIME MINISTER:

But that is the reason for the progressive decommissioning. I think that argument, I mean I wouldn't agree with that argument because I think there is absolutely no justification for violence to pursue a political argument at all. Let me just say that at the outset. But given that that is my position, and I think the position of most people, what people are saying to Sinn Fein and the IRA is let us have progressive decommissioning, decommission something, see how the talks proceed, as the talks proceed decommission a bit more. If you are really trying to press your political points, remove the impediments to other people who are saying we are not going to negotiate everything, and then at the last minute have Sinn Fein walk away from the table threatening to return to violence because they didn't get the last element of the deal that they wanted. There are going to be compromises in this deal, if this is going to come to a conclusion there are going to have to be compromises, don't imagine otherwise. No one side is going to get everything they want.

So what is the logical argument against a progressive decommissioning in line with progressive movement in the political process? I am not asking, and never have asked, the IRA to put themselves in a position where they have to come and throw down their weapons in front of the British government. I don't mind how they are decommissioned, I don't mind what international body actually oversees the decommissioning, I don't mind about that. I just want them taken out of use.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] in the north of Ireland to the extent that the RUC was forced to back down in the face of the threat of violence at Drumcree, and he said on a number of occasions that it was not possible for the police to hold the line and that that situation might prevail again. That seems to be a very serious admission that the British Government has lost control in the north?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we patently haven't lost control in the north. We have got 17,000 troops there, we have had them there for years, we have got a very large RUC presence, there were a particular set of circumstances on a particular incident. No-one should think one hasn't learned from that incident. To draw a general conclusion about law and order from a particular incident and a particular series of decisions taken by the Chief Constable I think would be to read too much into that particular incident. So I wouldn't accept the conclusion you draw from it.

QUESTION:

The Secretary of State made that conclusion.

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven't seen what the Secretary of State said and I don't draw the conclusion in its generality in the way that you present it to me.

QUESTION:

When the Taoiseach went to Washington recently, I am sure you will have seen that there was a story generated as a result of that that he appeared to be optimistic about the chance of a new ceasefire and there was some clarification sought [indistinct] the true import of what he said. But in the Republic I sense there is a feeling that the Taoiseach has been drumming up a sense of optimism, that a deal is inevitable, and we are trying to get the sense of whether this optimism is founded on a good basis. Can you send us away with some feeling of where the progress really is occurring?

PRIME MINISTER:

The answer is I won't. I am sorry but it is the outcome I want, not the publicity. Forgive me, I suppose that is a dreadful thing to say to you, but it is the outcome I want, not the publicity,

QUESTION (Sunday Tribune):

I listened to you very eloquently last year of your passion for peace in Northern Ireland, as you are today. What went wrong in the last year and how do you re-mend it to get Sinn Fein/IRA to the talks, at the same time undoing the damage of Drumcree and the sectarian [indistinct] that exists in Northern Ireland?

PRIME MINISTER:

Quite a lot has gone right as well as gone wrong. I won't reiterate the points about the elections and the forum, and the Mitchell Principles and the fact that the parties are now actually sitting down talking together in a way that we haven't seen in the past. All that is right. What has not gone right is the fact that violence has returned - that was a unilateral decision by the IRA - and Drumcree was an incident which caused difficulties, we have dealt with that and that we can't get Sinn Fein back into a position in advance of the ceasefire where they could credibly join the talks.

They couldn't credibly join the talks, even if .I were inclined to invite them - which I wouldn't be - because nobody else would remain at the talks to talk to them. So the question in many ways ought more accurately to be directed to the IRA. I don't know what caused them to decide that they would return to violence. I can make judgments as to what it is - I am not going to, before you ask me to - and I think those judgments might be right, but I don't know. I hope that as it becomes increasingly evident that progress is going to be made, and that we are not going to back away from this peace process and neither are the Irish Government, whether Sinn Fein are there or not, that it will become increasingly apparent to Sinn Fein that they are going to have to be there. And if they are going to have to be there, there is going to have to be a ceasefire and it is going to have to be credible, and there is going to have to be progressive decommissioning in line with political progress. What I am not prepared to do is to see these talks grind into the sand and stop because of the way the IRA have behaved. I am not prepared to do that, I will do everything I can to avoid that happening, and I hope that we will see a ceasefire in due course and that they will return. But I can't determine that myself.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't, if you mean of a particular issue?

QUESTION:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't, no. I don't do that.

QUESTION:

If you enjoyed a stronger majority in the House of Commons, do you think you might have been able to move faster?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think that is a false assessment because I have had a lot of cross-party support in the House of Commons. The majority in the House of Commons for the posture the government has taken is absolutely overwhelming. On any free vote in the House of Commons I would have a massive majority for this policy in the House of Commons. So the argument that the policy is held back by the size of the government's majority does not stand up to any logical examination at all.

QUESTION:

What about the increasing evidence that the Republican movement, both Sinn Fein and the IRA, are going to sit it out and they are going to wait for a Labour government in Britain and a Fianne Foyle government in Dublin. Does that cause you concern?

PRIME MINISTER:

They are going to have a jolly long wait.

QUESTION:

But it is something obviously you are aware of?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am aware that that might be their view. I think they are in for an extremely unpleasant shock, I can live with the shock they are going to be receiving, but I think they are in for an extremely unpleasant shock if they actually take that view.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

My word, you are sharp.

QUESTION:

The implication of it is that they are not going to do business, that they are going to hold back and that they are going to continually attack the British Government and try to force a coalition in the south against the British Government as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

If that is the strategy that they choose to pursue, why were they floating the prospect a few weeks ago that they were going to declare a ceasefire? If that is the strategy, how are they going to deal with the fact that there is going to be progress made in the talks without them being there? There is going to be progress made in the talks without them being there. If they want to sit it out they will miss the progress, they will have no voice at that table for those talks and those talks are going to continue. I am determined on that and so is John Bruton. So if that is their strategy it is an extremely misguided one.

QUESTION:

On progressive decommissioning the [inaudible] argument is very valid. Can there be an agreement in the multi-party talks that all the parties already in the multi-party talks will accept progressive decommissioning?

PRIME MINISTER:

It depends what you mean by all the parties.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you had better ask that question of David Trimble and not me. I am looking for an agreement that will enable us to have parallel decommissioning and political progress.

QUESTION:

At what stage would the first [inaudible] have to be decommissioned?

PRIME MINISTER:

That would be one of the matters that the decommissioning sub-committee would examine. It is not something that I would prescribe myself, I would be perfectly prepared to prescribe it myself but it wouldn't be the best way of getting an agreement, it would have to be an agreement in the discussions between the participating parties in the Mitchell sub-committee, it would have to be done that way.

QUESTION (Sunday Independent):

In the event of a sustained impasse developing in the all-party talks, what alternative is there open to the government? Would it, for example, have a bilateral agreement with the Irish government and then attempt to impose that over the heads of the parties?

PRIME MINISTER:

If I wanted to bring the talks to a juddering halt, I would suggest what I would do in the event of that actually happening. I don't think it would be helpful for me to speculate at all on what I would do. I expect the talks to continue, and I believe the talks will continue and I wish the talks to continue and I am not going to speculate.

QUESTION:

Does that mean that the British government has a fall-back position?

PRIME MINISTER:

Whether we have a fall-back position or not, I am not going to speculate about it.

QUESTION:

Tomorrow morning Gerry Adams will be in the House of Commons. Does this infuriate you, what are your feelings on [indistinct].

PRIME MINISTER:

I am happy to offer cross-party support to Mr Blair in his problem.

QUESTION:

Is he offering you cross-party support in your problem?

PRIME MINISTER:

He has offered me cross-party support on Ireland.

QUESTION:

But on Europe?

PRIME MINISTER:

But he has got the same problems that I have.

QUESTION:

But yours are particularly acute.

PRIME MINISTER:

Only because your colleagues in the press tend to concentrate more on ours. He has got more real anti-Europeans and Euro-sceptics in the Labour Party than there is in the Conservative Party. Do not be deceived about that. The day Mr Skinner, Mr Benn, Mr Shore and 50 others I could easily mention become anything other than solidly opposed to any aspect of the European venture will be a very remarkable day indeed. They are keeping very quiet for the time being.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] and maybe history will tell us, that by meeting Gerry Adams in the House of Commons you might actually achieve the securing of the peace talks once again. Have you thought that you might be able to help by having such a meeting, would it not be an issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think that it would help at this moment to have such a meeting.

QUESTION:

Why?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it would help to have such a meeting at this moment. Gerry Adams has just utterly declined to condemn the prospect of 10 tons of explosives, in the middle of London or wherever it may be; he utterly failed to condemn the murder of those little boys at Warrington; he utterly failed to condemn Canary Wharf. Upon what basis would a British Prime Minister meet him when that is his position?

QUESTION:

Because you might move the situation forward and achieve a ceasefire as a result of a gesture like that, it is just a suggestion?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I understand you are putting it to me as a suggestion but I don't think it is a suggestion that is credible at the moment.

QUESTION:

There is very little evidence that the Unionist parties have any interest in these talks, with or without Sinn Fein, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that they will sit down with Sinn Fein, even in the context of a ceasefire. How do you bring all-party talks about?

PRIME MINISTER:

With great respect, you say there is little evidence that they will actually do it.

QUESTION:

Because they feel that they don't have to.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think that is right and I will try and answer your question I think in two complementary ways. Firstly, the comment that you just made that they don't have an interest in proceeding and so forth, that is exactly the view that many people have taken right the way through the last few years, that they would never accept the Downing Street Declaration, they would never accept the framework plan, that they would never accept a whole range of other things. Gradually they and the Nationalist parties have accepted those things. I understand the frustration, and at any one time can find 10,000 reasons why there won't be progress. But slowly, often I concede at a snail's pace, progress is continually being made, each hurdle gradually has been overcome.

The other point that I personally make, you may have heard me say it before but I passionately believe it to be true, that whatever the view may be of the political parties at any one stage, the view of the everyday citizen in Northern Ireland is that they want progress. For the first time in the lifetime of nearly half the people in Northern Ireland, they had an 18 month period in which they had the same sort of peaceful existence that people could expect in London or in Dublin. And they liked that. When one is out on the streets meeting with them and talking with them, the tangible feeling from them, from the churches, from the community leaders that they wish to see that return is real. Now the political parties have to be in negotiating posture. But don't think as individuals that in the case of the politicians that they too don't want the return of that. I have seen some of them, both sides, I am not making a Unionist point or a Nationalist point, I have seen some of those MPs, whether in the Ulster Unionist Party or any of the other political parties, the SDLP, the DUP, I have seen those MPs after there has been some atrocity in their constituency. So of course they have negotiating positions, but the feeling amongst their supporters, whichever party they represent, that they want and they believe the politicians should find a way through this problem is tangible.

Now what we have to do is to stop the thing that has bedevilled Northern Ireland so frequently over recent years where you have something that becomes a part of the mythology and hauls progress back just when you think you are moving forward. That happens from time to time but we are going to have to try and ride over that. The greatest hope for peace in Northern Ireland is retaining the determination amongst ordinary people, everyday people, that they have a right to that peace in their part of the island of Ireland. I believe that very strongly. Every time I go there I believe that, whether they are people who are supportive of what r am doing or oppose what I am doing. I think the politicians are not immune from that and they cannot be immune from that.

QUESTION:

The worrying thing is that of course there is a desire for peace, but we have never seen the dearth of sectarianism that we now see across Northern Ireland, and indeed across the [indistinct] and this is the result that it would seem from the post-Drumcree split where the Province was paralysed, where towns and villages were surrounded and barricaded and where force seemed to triumph. So the politicians really would need to break out of that sectarianism and show leadership, but there is very little leadership being shown. Certainly perhaps on the Nationalist side we have people like John Hume and Seamus Mallon, but on the Unionist side [indistinct].

PRIME MINISTER:

Out of disaster can come triumph. I think the sheer concern that you illustrate, which I know existed in Northern Ireland after Drumcree, the sheer concern and in some cases fear as to what might happen that actually came out of that, I think shook everybody, including the politicians. I believe that does change minds. Who would wish in any way to be in the position where it was said they had contributed to that problem again? Who in public life in Northern Ireland would wish to find themselves in that position? It is not so easy to strike attitudes on the back of that. So I don't think Drumcree was a plus, but I think out of Drumcree you can see the possibility of changed attitudes and I think we will see a possibility of changed attitudes, and I am not as pessimistic as some of the comments around this table lead me to believe that you are, not at all.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] which is the religious thing [Indistinct] do you understand that, because that is your core problem? [Indistinct] and the churchmen have [Indistinct].

PRIME MINISTER:

My experience of the churchmen, overwhelmingly, whether it is on the Protestant side or on the Catholic side, is that they have been very supportive. I have met the senior churchmen regularly here and they have been unfailingly supportive. They haven't always agreed with every aspect of government policy, I am not trying to suggest that to you, but their desire to see this process move forward, on no occasion have they denied their support when I particularly needed it to move the process forward. And I think some of the things they have said, on both sides, have been very brave. I don't agree with everything they have said and I wouldn't pretend to you that I did, but some of it I think has been very brave.

QUESTION:

Ted Heath, in his proposal through the power-sharing executive [Indistinct] education because of the failure of [Indistinct] they don't get to the core. What are your proposals for an integrated education in Northern Ireland? It is things like that that get back to the basics.

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me take that point directly. One of the things that Northern Ireland has lacked over the past 25 years or so is politicians in Northern Ireland who had to take decisions rather than to advance views. That is profoundly worrying. Politicians ought to take decisions and then answer for their decisions. I want to get back to a situation in Northern Ireland where politicians actually take decisions on local matters and have to answer to people for the decisions they take, rather than simply represent their electors with the views that they and their electors have had. When you are faced with the reality of taking decisions, it is a different proposition from when you are simply advancing a view. And that is the direction in which I am moving and the direction in which I wish to move. Once they are taking decisions the ball-game begins to change. And there is a lot of talent in Northern Ireland. It is a tragedy in Northern Ireland that for 25 years you have not had politicians with any real decision-making to take.

QUESTION:

I am happy about what you are saying. I remember being present at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin when Protestant churchmen came down, and I think it was Dr Mahaffey who said, he was being asked to discuss the problem of leadership, and he said you can't lead from a mile down the road. And that struck me, I thought it was a worrying kind of observation. Would you make any comment on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is a slightly ambiguous observation. Can you tell me who said it?

QUESTION:

Dr Mahaffey, the Bishop of Derry.

PRIME MINISTER:

For a Bishop he would make a superb politician because there is a degree of studied ambiguity in that which I very much admire.

QUESTION:

Can I ask you for clarification of one point, because it is ambiguous and it is open to several interpretations, and that is your comment that you want to see politicians in Northern Ireland getting back to making decisions. You know there is a great fear on the part of a number of Nationalists of a return to a Stormont-type situation and you know there is a desire on the part of some Unionist politicians for a return. So what exactly do you mean?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I know exactly what you are worrying about, am I talking about a wholly internal settlement? No, I am not talking about a wholly internal settlement. I am talking about the fact that as part of the three-stranded process, as part of the discussions between the parties, we have got to get ourselves into a situation where there is a genuine capacity for decisions that in the rest of the United Kingdom are actually taken directly by local politicians actually being taken in Northern Ireland as well. I am glad you raised that question so that there was no misunderstanding about it. It is a lack of accountability when so much of the decision-making process which normally ought to be in local hands is not in local hands. I would like to put it back in local hands, I think it is a very healthy thing to do. But it isn't an easy thing to do and it has to be done by agreement, but it is one of the things that I think we need to stretch to. If we are going to get this thing really working properly it is going to be platform by platform, step by step, you are going to have to build it up. I think that is one of the building blocks.

QUESTION:

What contribution do you think the framework document can make in that respect, and the [Indistinct] document that actually talks about building political structures locally as well as cross-border institutions and executive powers?

PRIME MINISTER:

The framework document is not a blueprint. The blueprint, if indeed there is to be one, will come out of the talks and then it will be agreed between the political parties. What we were effectively asked to do was to provide a cock-shy as it were, a framework that we thought, that we the government thought, would be acceptable to people. But neither of the governments are saying this is an absolute blueprint from which no-one can deviate, these are things that they will have to discuss themselves.

QUESTION:

The Irish Government is saying that it should form a very important building block.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is self-evidently a very important building block.

QUESTION:

You accept that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it is an important building block, that is why we developed the frameworks. An important building block, yes; written in letters of fire and immutable, no. It has to be discussed and agreed, it is a basis for the discussion and agreement that is to follow. But what we wish to see is to make sure that that discussion and agreement takes place. We have set out in the frameworks the areas that we think need discussing. But if it was immutable there would be no point in going into the talks process. We have to go into the talks process so that we can find out the degree of support, or opposition, or areas where mild changes may be needed amongst the various political parties in Northern Ireland. And then after that of course, when a final agreement has been reached, it will need to be put to all the people of Northern Ireland as an outcome in a referendum.

QUESTION:

Can you envisage the outline of a settlement, as Dick Spring has suggested he thought was possible over the last few days, an idea yourself of how this could be resolved and over what timescale?

PRIME MINISTER:

Timescale depends on goodwill. It is very difficult to pick timescale. With serious and mature discussion and a willingness to pragmatically compromise and decommissioning proceeding in parallel, I think quite rapid progress could be made. Without any of those ingredients progress is going to be very slow. So I think that is the difficulty when people occasionally say to us well why don't you set a constraining time limit to the talks? What would happen is that anybody who wished the talks to fail would simply fail to reach agreement within the time frame and that it would all fall to pieces. So although it sounds as though it would put impetus into the talks, I think it would ensure the talks ground to a halt. If you mean can I see a way in which you could have an outcome, personally yes I do see a way in which there could be an outcome. But it isn't what I think at the end of the day is going to be the only determining factor. The principal determining factor will be what can be agreed between the political parties and either for John Bruton, or Dick Spring, or I to say we think this is the right way forward might not necessarily - I say this with some humility - be the best way to ensure that you got that agreement.

QUESTION:

Do you think that you will call your general election before John Bruton calls his?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that depends on when John Bruton calls his.

QUESTION:

[Indistinct] November, but May/June might be more realistic?

PRIME MINISTER:

This year or next year? Well I am in no hurry for my general election. Our economy is now outstripping the rest of Europe quite comfortably and the economic statistics are rolling out extremely well. We have now got inflation at levels we haven't seen it for a very long time; we have got mortgage rates and interest rates lower than we have had for a very long time indeed; we have got growth accelerating, exports accelerating and we are probably the most competitive nation at the moment in Western Europe. And there is no doubt that that trend looks pretty well established. So I am in no hurry. I am happy to let the trend roll on for a while.

QUESTION:

When will you decide on EMU?

PRIME MINISTER:

We don't know the facts to decide on it yet. Let us assume you were a farmer, well you might be for all I know. A farmer asked me the other day: How will EMU affect me? And I said to the farmer: Well I can't tell you the answer to that question. He said how will it affect me if we - by that he meant the UK - are in EMU? I said: I can't tell you that yet. How will it affect us if you are not in EMU? I said: I can't tell you that yet, I don't know what the circumstances of it are. Will it affect us? Yes, I said to him, it will affect you whether we are in it or whether we are out of it.

And that is really the substantive point. If it is going to affect my country whether we are in it or whether we are not in it, how could I explain to the farmer, or the businessman, or the man in the city, or the man or woman in the street, that I had decided to rule myself out of those negotiations when the outcome of those negotiations would affect them? What would I have said to my farmer who asked me whether it would affect him, and I said Yes, when he then said to me: Then why are you, the British Prime Minister, not in there negotiating in my interests?

What is the answer to that question? There is no answer to that question. And the decision that will be taken on Economic and Monetary Union for Europe as a whole, I am not just talking of the UK, will be the biggest economic decision Europe has taken. It needs to be right, it needs to be considered. You have to consider what it means for the smaller countries of Europe as well as the big countries of Europe. You have to consider what it means for the countries who don't go into a single currency as well as those who do go into a single currency.

If people are Statesmen, they would have to consider what it means for the countries who are coming into the European Union as well as those who are in it. The biggest single issue I think that the European Union has to face is how to absorb into the European Union those former Iron Curtain countries in central Europe who look to the West for freedom, an open market and a quality of life that we enjoy in the West. That is an opportunity for this generation of politicians that no generation of politicians has ever had before - the opportunity to create an economic market that would prevent the sort of wars that have twice started in Europe in this century and that in the last few years we have seen in Yugoslavia. l think that is a bigger prize than institutional change within the existing members of the European Union. And I think to concentrate on the institutional change, without looking at that wider picture that may ensure that our children and our grandchildren never face the sort of difficulties that our fathers and our grandfathers faced, is not Statesmanship but folly. And that is why I think we have to look at that as the first issue.