PRIME MINISTER AHERN: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank the President for his interest in Irish matters this last seven years. For the last five years, we have developed the Northern Ireland peace process. I particularly want to thank him for giving one of his best and trusted colleagues to Ireland, Senator George Mitchell. He has almost spent five years with us, in one forum or another, and we thank him for that.
We particularly thank him for this third round of discussions this year, 11 weeks of intensive dialogue, of comprehensive discussions, which he has chaired throughout. And can I add, I think a great part of the trust and the confidence which we could not generate earlier this year was assisted by the fact that we could use the United States Embassy in London which, I think, created a new confidence for the parties, and we appreciated that. And it allowed the parties to get away from the ordinary, run-of-the-mill activities and to concentrate their minds. So that was a great help.
The reality is now, we're within a week or two of devolution of all the things that can bring the Good Friday Agreement to reality. I just hope that all of the work that's been done by Senator Mitchell concluded yesterday successfully. I will now allow it to go forward.
And from the Irish government's point of view, working in partnership with the British government, with Tony Blair, working with the great assistance with the President, this is an opportunity which most people thought we'd never get. We have it now, it's for us to make it work. And I believe that the partnership government, working with the new institutions, the north-south bodies, it will allow us to go forward in peace and confidence and prosperity, and we appreciate that opportunity, President.
Q Mr. President, the IRA statement yesterday made no mention of an actual turnover of weapons. Can there be a real peace until that happens?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that is required by the Good Friday Accord, and I think the fact that they have committed themselves to a process involving General de Chastelain and the decommissioning body, indicates where this is going.
My sense is -- and maybe Prime Minister Ahern would like to comment, he knows more than I do -- but my sense is that both sides know what the other is going to say and do along this road, and that this is the next step. And I thought it was an encouraging statement; it's certainly the most forthcoming the IRA has been as opposed to Sinn Fein, and so I think that we're moving in the right direction.
PRIME MINISTER AHERN: What the President says is absolutely correct, and I think the IRA statement has to be read in conjunction with the Sinn Fein statement of the previous day. And the key aspect that people should remember is that last July, when Tony Blair and I tried to bring this to this stage of completion and did not succeed, it was the actions of an IRA statement. And the IRA, at that stage, had not agreed to put somebody working directly as an interlocutor with General de Chastelain. That has now been achieved.
Q Mr. President, Mr. Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party still has to
convince his party that this agreement with Senator Mitchell is worth going
ahead with. Do you have any message for the Ulster Unionists?
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you very much.
Q Mr. President, what do you think of the Greek government's decision to ban protests during your visit to Athens?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know that that's exactly the decision they made, so I can't comment until I'm absolutely sure that's what they did. I thought what they were trying to do is to do what a lot of countries do, which is to maintain some sort of distance between the protests and the subject of the protests. I don't believe they have banned them all.
Q There seem to be some protests brewing there for your arrival, sir. What's your reaction to that, and --
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I'm delighted to be going, and I'm not concerned about the protests. Greece and the United States have been great allies, they're very important to us. The Greek-American community is a very important part of our country, and the country has made absolutely astonishing progress over the last 10 years. And I would hope that this would be an opportunity for us to talk about what we have in common and where we're going.
I also think that the Greek people and the government should be quite encouraged by this new Cyprus initiative, and by the fact that I found a receptive ear here on three separate occasions when I spoke in Turkey about the necessity of the Turkish people and the Greeks being reconciled. So I know that a lot of people in Greece disagree with my position on Kosovo, and they have a right to their opinion and I have a right to mine. I believe I was right and I think that the facts have proved that I was right. But I don't mind -- Greece is the world's oldest democracy. If people want to protest, they ought to have a chance to do it.
Q Mr. President, do you think President Yeltsin might be changing course now on Chechnya by allowing an OSCE official to go and follow the political process?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it's encouraging that the OSCE Chairman in Office has been invited there. I also think it's encouraging that this charter signing, which we're going to have in here in a few minutes, will be joined by Russia, because the charter specifically says that we do have to be concerned about internal affairs in other countries. So this is a significant move by Russia, and so these two things are encouraging.
Obviously, we've got a lot of turns in the road on Chechnya before it's resolved, but I would say that, compared to how things were when we all got here, those are two things that are hopeful.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 9:52 A.M. (L)
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