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Mr Bertie Ahern TD, Taoiseach of Ireland, 14 March 2000: transcript of joint press conference [Northern Ireland peace process; East Timor; mandatory sentencing]



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14 March 2000

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH MR BERTIE AHERN TD

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND

Subjects: Northern Ireland peace process; East Timor; Mandatory Sentencing

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to say how very pleased I am on behalf of the Australian Government and the Australian people that the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern, is a guest in our country.

I’ll have an opportunity tonight at the parliamentary dinner to say something of the depth of the relationship over many decades between Australia and Ireland. The Taoiseach and I have discussed the bilateral relationship which I am very pleased to say is in excellent shape. We have talked about the success of the Irish economy. He tells me of the great success Ireland has had in reversing the outward flow of its people which was a characteristic of the Irish experience for many decades. How unemployment has fallen to a level of around 4.5 per cent which is a great achievement and of the tremendous success Ireland has had in attracting industry to its country.

In so many ways the Irish economy is one of the great success stories of Europe. It’s a modern, vibrant, outward looking progressive economy which acts as something of a role model for many of the other economies of Europe.

We have briefly discussed the Northern Irish peace process. All of us here in Australia want, along with the overwhelming bulk of the people of the Irish Republic and also the people of Northern Ireland, want to see the peace process put back on the rails and the one view that I would express on behalf of the Australian Government to all of the parties involved is that the terms of the Good Friday agreement must be honoured in full because that is the basis of achieving lasting peace in what has been an extremely troubled experience stretching over a very long period of time.

I have also had the opportunity of thanking the Taoiseach for Ireland’s contribution to the INTERFET force in East Timor. The Irish rangers were a very valuable addition to that force and we are very grateful

that they came so far from their homeland to participate in that operation.

But, ladies and gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure to welcome the leader, the elected leader of the Irish people to this country. I said during the visit of the Irish President, Mary McAleese, in September of last year that only an Irish President could interrupt an Australian election campaign and live to tell the tale and it is in that spirit that I welcome the Taoiseach to our country. I hope that he has a very happy time here and I know that all of us look forward to the dinner tonight which will be not only a very important parliamentary occasion but I am sure will be a very pleasant social gathering as well.

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Thank you very much Prime Minister and can I thank you for the discussions we have had today and for your cooperation in so many things and the assistance of all your people during our week in Australia. We do want to thank you from the bottom of our heart for all of the arrangements that have been made by your people all around Australia in Darwin and Melbourne and Sydney and now here for these important discussions today. We are looking forward to the meetings that we’ll have. Shortly I’ll meet with the parliamentary group who were set up in 1986 when I was here as part of the first Irish parliamentary group and your support for their efforts and endeavours is much appreciated.

In our discussions this morning we had an opportunity of talking about economic matters and economic matters that affect us across the world. But we have very good bilateral relationships as the Prime Minister said and that’s worked really well and I think in whatever way and whatever organisational system that we can help in, our trade and the development of our economies we can do so. We have no great difficulties and no great arguments and we cooperate very well and these days we’ve had an opportunity with Enterprise Ireland and our other agencies, a Consular-General office in Sydney, of working to develop those and I thank you for your help and assistance with this.

I congratulated the Prime Minister on what I think everybody in Europe but particularly in Ireland for people who have taken an enormous interest in East Timor back since the mid ‘70s. The movement of the INTERFET force so speedily, so quickly provided assistance for the East Timorese people at the time they were most vulnerable and where there could have been a humanitarian catastrophe of enormous proportions. Our troops are once again delighted in small numbers admittedly the rangers relief group to work side-by-side with the Australian forces and under their command and we deem that a great honour in Ireland to follow the, now the transitional forces and the transitional administration. I wish you well in all that is happening in that.

We’ve also discussed Northern Ireland. I have spoken quite a lot about that while I have been in Australia and I want to thank the Prime Minister for his support and the support of his Government for the implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the Good Friday agreement was voted by the people less than two years ago. It was the first all Ireland vote since 1918 where the people of Northern Ireland voted by over 70 per cent for and the people of the South of Ireland voted almost 95 per cent for. And so we are committed and working with Prime Minister Tony Blair for the full implementation of the agreement. I look forward to our meetings and discussions today and I look forward tonight to meeting the parliamentary leaders and I want to thank you on behalf of all our delegation and on behalf of the Irish people, Prime Minister, for not only this visit but for the way that Irish people have always been treated, past generations and the current ones, by your people and by your country and thank you personally for that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Mr Ahern, as I understand you’re heading to Washington at the end of this week where you’re going to be

outlining a new two-pronged strategy to break the impasse over the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland. Could you explain that to us, could you outline that?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Yes, we will be in Washington. President Clinton has been enormously supportive through his entire term of office in helping the Northern Ireland peace process. It’s going to be difficult to make any major breakthrough this week. I think that’s going to take some time further. But it will afford us the opportunity of all the party leaders having some discussions, having some dialogue. We still hope to try to get the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That means dealing with all of the aspects that we failed to resolve and we have failed to resolve. We must get the institutions up and running as soon as possible and we must also endeavour to deal with the arms issue and other outstanding issues. And the discussions this week will I think at least be forerunners to what we hope to do when we’re back in Ireland. It is our view now that it is only the two governments working with the pro Green parties that can resolve these issues, and hopefully there’s the good will to do that.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] are you prepared to move beyond the issue, the single issue of disarmament though, and look perhaps at Britain reducing its military presence in the province and also seeking a declaration from the IRA that war is over. Is that correct?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Well I think we all want to hear from all of the paramilitary groups that the war is over, that there’ll be no use of arms in the future. And we also want to see peace hold and ceasefires hold that we have less troops and less military infrastructure in areas that are particularly difficult and that they are part of the discussions and hopefully we can reach conclusions.

JOURNALIST:

Is that a new strategy though?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

I don’t think it is a new strategy but it is all part of fulfilling the Good Friday Agreement. We have to find a means of putting arms beyond use. Perhaps that is trying to redefine the difficulties that we have. But we’re still committed in to implementing the Good Friday Agreement.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] Is there a linkage between the process of decommissioning and demilitarisation than there was before?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Well demilitarisation still has to be part of the overall implementation of the agreement. I have always stated, and it’s been something that the British Government agree with us on, as the threat is reduced so also shall the military infrastructure and the enormous amount of military and military infrastructure in areas like South Armagh, particularly in areas like Crossmaglen. There has been no difficulties in Crossmaglen of any substantive nature since the Summer of 1994 and we are soon heading to the Summer of the year 2000. But still the people in South Armagh state that there is now at least as many troops and there is probably higher surveillance than there’s been at any time in peace time and that is a particular difficulty. But that’s one aspect. I think if we are to get anywhere without recriminations we have to just try to implement all aspects of the agreement. We have to look at the ones that are not done, criminal justice system, the equality agenda, the arms issue which is part of the Good Friday agreement and we have to try and conclude an agreement on them all.

JOURNALIST:

Beyond general expressions of support from the Australian government for the Good Friday Agreement in its full implementation, do you see any possible further diplomatic role for Australia in terms of the [inaudible ] to either Britain, or President Clinton through the United States avenue?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Well, I think the Prime Minister has always been helpful and as he has stated today his policy is clear and I think the world knows what his policy is on Northern Ireland and there is not anything else. But of course there are other things that the Australian Government has done since 1994. They have supported the Ireland fund, this has helped to build community relationships in the most difficult areas on the border, I have just mentioned one, Crossmaglen, but there are many others. And the Australian Government has been to the forefront of assisting us with a small group of other countries in doing that and that’s much appreciated by these communities.

JOURNALIST:

Is demilitarisation in Northern Ireland still linked to putting arms beyond use?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Well, let’s be clear, demilitarisation is everything. Demilitarisation is putting arms beyond use and having less military presence, taking guns out of Irish politics, getting rid of the tower blocks, closing the detention centres, closing the interrogation centres and all of the other matters. That is demilitarisation and that is a broad question that has to be handled. Decommissioning of arms is part of the Good Friday agreement. It is a more focussed issue and it is…the Good Friday agreement states that the decommissioning is an essential part of the agreement and I think in the short-term, and this is our difficulty, in the short-term we have to find a resolution to decommissioning. It, of course, in the longer term I think it can be linked to overall demilitarisation. What we want to do is to get the gun out of Irish politics and to take as much security as is necessary to take out. There will always have to be security for some considerable time but hopefully not at the levels we have today.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, could I just ask you, are you putting, is your government putting pressure on the Indonesian government in relation to the increase in incursions across the West Timor border?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are not specifically altering our representations to the Indonesian Government as a result of that. We naturally are concerned about any evidence or any sign of an increase in incursions, on the other hand, we accept that there is still a considerable degree of instability and we set that against the overwhelmingly positive attitude we take towards the Indonesian Government’s approach under President Wahid. His goodwill gesture in going to East Timor, the evident determination of his government to allow the processes of justice in Indonesia to bring to account those who were responsible for the wrongs committed against the people of East Timor. It remains a, the over whelming fact that Indonesia has altered an incredible amount over the last few months and I admire very much the commitment the President and his government is making to democratic institutions, the cause of economic reform, the willingness to embrace East Timor, a desire to understand the importance of international opinion so far as Indonesia is concerned and very particularly the strength he is displaying in relation to the, bringing to account those responsible for wrong doing in East Timor. So I guess, to put it succinctly you have to set any untoward development against that background. There has been a huge change and I think it’s something that should be encouraged, supported and applauded by the Australian Government and it is.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, are you happy with the pardon in advance offered to General Wiranto?

PRIME MINISTER:

I take the view Mr Barker that we ought to allow the processes set in train by the Indonesian Government to run their course.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard is there any chance that you will allow a ‘conscience’ vote on mandatory sentencing? Is concern in your own party strong enough?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well a conscience vote is a misnomer. It’s a free vote and not a conscience vote if you… that's the term that I have tended to use to describe it. Let me explain…and I am coming to that, well that's fine. If you look at the tradition of the Liberal Party, this is not the sort of thing that would fall into the category of requiring a free vote. It was the case in 1994 when the Keating Government overrode the Tasmanian anti-homosexual laws that the then opposition actually had a party position and supported that decision. We didn’t allow free vote then and we were then in opposition and there are a lot of people in our party who argued at that time on the more conservative side, if I can use that nomenclature for the purpose of this discussion that there ought to be a free vote, but we took the view that you maintain free votes for those things that are indisputably likely to attract them such as the issues like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment. And in the 25 years that I have been in the parliament, you have had 3 or 4 examples. You had a free vote on the family law act in 1975, I can remember free votes on abortion bills and a free vote on euthanasia and if you look at that genre, we don’t and this is not a view that I alone hold but its certainly a view held by the leadership of both the liberal and national parties that its not the sort of thing that qualifies for a free vote.

Can I say that this is not an easy issue and I respect very much the feelings of people who are unhappy with the northern territory law. I don't myself believe in mandatory sentencing. I think it can be counter productive. I'm not satisfied that the evidence pleaded in aid of mandatory sentencing is very convincing, so I am certainly in that group of people in Australia, probably a minority, that doesn’t believe that it’s effective. But in the end you have got to put into balance a lot of things including the character of the federation, the role played by state and territory parliaments and the democratic processes of those societies. These things aren't easy and I respect the strength of feeling that a number of my colleagues have on this issue and we’ll continue to talk about it within the forum of the party and I am sensitive to their views and I can understand that they are held very sincerely and I have talked at some length to a number of them about it and explained the basis of our approach to the issue of free votes. I think we will have one more question and then we might let the Taoiseach go and visit some of my other colleagues.

JOURNALIST:

I don’t know if you discussed immigration policy with the Prime Minister, but yesterday you seemed to find some merit in Australian law dealing with illegal, what we call illegal immigrants. Now part of that provides for detention of illegal immigrants. Are we heading for detention camps in a compound situation in Ireland?

TAOISEACH OF IRELAND:

Well we haven't discussed it but I did over the last number of days take in a few centres where we looked at how the policy works here and I think as you know at home and the view from the parliament at home, that people believe the Australian system is probably the best in the world of integration and yesterday we saw some examples of how that works. We are presently reviewing our own systems. We are trying to deal with a situation where the numbers are growing quite rapidly from several countries with people in from twenty countries. The compound rule is not only an Australian one. The Netherlands and the Danes

and many other countries in Europe are operating this. We have not been doing that. We follow as Australian does, the UN High Commission rules. But I think we have to look at what is best practice and what is best done and John O'Donahue, our minister for Justice has been in Europe looking at the schemes there. I have had an opportunity to brief myself here. I was kindly given the full manuals which we carefully studied, yesterday. We’ve no decisions made on them. But I think it is interesting and I got some very forthright advice yesterday from the people here and what they thought about the open policy and just moving people around and then try and close it down later and I’ll certainly reflect on that because they are people who know what they are talking about.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well thank you. See you tonight.

[ends]