No more questions please?

When, at yesterday morning’s Downing St press briefing, a Guardian journalist pointed out to the Prime Ministers Official Spokesman that Tony Blair’s answer at Commons questions last week was unsatisfactory, he was asked if he had read his paper’s editorial, noted here – “the overriding objective in Northern Ireland is to build the politics of the future” – and the PMOS added some follow-up questions too. Later in the day, however, Tony Blair suggested, in response to a question by the DUP’s Ian Paisley, that further information may be made available. By the evening though, after several identical interviews to the media by Peter Hain, the NIO released this statement.. setting out the facts and calling for, in effect, no more questions about the spy-ring at Stormont. In this morning’s Irish Times, Irish government Minister Dermot Ahern appeared to join that call.[subs req]From the Downing St press briefing on the 19th December [scroll down] –

Asked what the Prime Minister’s reply to the continuing claims from Sinn Fein’s that there was political interference in the Stormontgate affair, the PMOS replied that for obvious legal and security reasons, there was a limit to what he could say. The Prime Minister had not changed his view which was supported by the Police Ombudsmen, that the police operation in Stormont was both right and necessary. The Prime Minister fully supported the police in what they did, and that was his view before last week, and that view remained.

Asked what was the Prime Minister’s view on the Taoseich’s comments that he was sceptical about the official explanation about what was happening, the PMOS replied that this was a situation in which for all the reasons the PMOS had set out, it was difficult to give a full explanation. That therefore posed problems in terms of explaining why we had the view we had, and why the Prime Minister continued to have that view. However, the Prime Minister’s view remained exactly the same, which was this operation was justified and necessary.

Put by The Guardian that the Prime Minister’s answer at Commons questions last week was unsatisfactory, so what was going on, the PMOS asked the journalist if he had read his own editorial today? The PMOS also asked the journalist what it was about the Prime Minister’s comments last week at PMQs that justified the allegations. The PMOS wanted to differentiate two things: one was the reasons why the case was abandoned, which was entirely a decision taken by the legal authorities. As the Prime Minister made clear, there was no interference by him or by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Secondly, in terms of the police operation, there were good legal and security reasons why we could not be more explicit, and why we continued to believe the operation was justified. That remained the case, and we accepted that that meant that there was a less than full explanation. People could accept or reject that, but from our perspective, that remained the case.

Asked if the Prime Minister knew in his own mind precisely why the democratic institution in Northern Ireland was suspended, as many people were less sure than they once were, the PMOS replied: yes, the Prime Minister did know, and he remained convinced.

Asked why there would be no further information from the Government on Stormont, the PMOS replied because it was not possible to give ay further information.[emphasis added]

Later in the day, Tony Blair responded to a Commons question by the DUP’s Ian Paisley

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Prime Minister mentioned that there was a discussion at the talks of terrorism and the counter-terrorist plan. Did he discuss the counter-terrorist plan in Northern Ireland? It seems strange to the people of Northern Ireland that the tragic situation that is developing in Northern Ireland cannot be debated in this House of Commons, but the Prime Minister can discuss it at the talks and skim over it when he makes his report. I remind him of the promise that he made to me on Wednesday that he would consider whether more information could be given to the House of Commons, and I hope that he will keep that promise.

The Prime Minister: On that last point, although it is obviously not the issue of the statement, I am looking at what more we can say and put into the public domain, but it must be done in accordance with the advice that we receive as to what is legally proper. We are looking at that and I think that it would be helpful if we were able to give some more information, but it can be done only with the consent of the proper authorities. I emphasise once again, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts this from me, that neither I, the Secretary of State nor Ministers were involved in the decision. It was a decision taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions, as it should be. I am looking carefully at what more can be said, but it has to be within the bounds of what is legally proper.[emphasis added]

Secretary of State, Peter Hain, then released this statement from the NIO, which after setting out the facts as he sees it, had this to say –

On wider political issues the Secretary of State said that politics in Northern Ireland has been characterised by turbulence.

“We need to stand back a bit from the headlines and the political frenzy.

“Since October 2002 we have seen huge progress.

“In November last year we came near to closing the deal that would have brought back Devolution.

“We have had the historic IRA statement of 28 July saying in effect that ‘the war is over’

“In September we had the act of decommissioning that many told us would never happen.

“We are determined to keep working to establish the level of trust necessary to restore devolution.

“At times like this, that is not easy.

“What is clear, however, is that we cannot go into elections for an Assembly in May 2007 that will not exist.

“It is in no one’s interest for that to happen.

“That is a fact that everyone in this process needs to face.”

And in the Irish Times today Dermot Ahern was also on-message –

In an unusually strong show of unity following the so-called Stormontgate revelations, Peter Hain and Dermot Ahern said their governments were committed to establishing political stability ahead of scheduled Assembly elections in May 2007. Dublin and London believe there would be little point in those elections if the Belfast Agreement remains suspended.

Political trust between the parties crumbled further yesterday in the aftermath of the spying allegations, with the SDLP accusing Sinn Féin and British officials of a cover-up. Unionists persisted in the clamour for London to set its story straight.

Despite this, both ministers insisted they had faith in each other, as did their respective governments, and refused to dwell on the Stormont controversy.

They were at pains to make clear that their political drive for progress in the New Year would go ahead despite the turmoil over the unmasking of senior Sinn Féin official Denis Donaldson as a British spy of 20 years’ standing, and the intense pressure for answers.

Mr Ahern said: “Nothing should allow us to be diverted from what we are meeting here today about . . . and that is to move forward as much as possible.”

He said London had agreed a statement would be made presenting as fully as possible the facts of the Stormont spying affair.

“These events are fortunately the vestige of the past,” said Mr Ahern. “We want to put these behind us as much as we can. The important issue is where we move from here in order to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running.”

The problem for both the British and Irish governments, is that the facts presented by Peter Hain, and re-iterated today by Hugh Orde, are not the same facts as presented by Sinn Féin.

By not answering fully the questions that are being put, the British and Irish governments are simply allowing the contradictory versions of events to be repeatedly disputed.. and those questions, as the BBC’s Mark Devenport spells out, still remain.. despite my own attempt at sketching out a more coherent theory.

  • Pete Baker

    Just to add, with a bump *ahem* –

    Unless the British, and Irish, governments shift from their current position of ‘let’s move on’ – a position that, despite their apparent outrage, Sinn Féin are also adopting – Gerry Moriarty’s summation of the problem will continue to be accurate, in the Irish Times yesterday[subs req]

    Republicans will believe the Sinn Féin scenario; unionists won’t: the rest of us will have to decide for ourselves which is the most credible.

    Moving on isn’t very likely if that situation is allowed to continue.