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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 16, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

2:36 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We wanted to wait until those of you who came back from the President's education event. But I do have, as promised, Jim Steinberg here, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor. Jim is going to go through the sequence of meetings that the President has, beginning with his meeting with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams tonight and the leaders of the parties tomorrow, at what is, I think Jim would agree, a very critical moment in the Northern Ireland peace process and one in which the coincidence of St. Patrick's Day and the meeting of all of the party leaders here provides the President with, I think, an important opportunity to help the parties and the government of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to move the work forward.

Mr. Steinberg.

MR. STEINBERG: Good afternoon. As Mike said, this is a very important and potentially promising moment in the long history of a search for peace in Northern Ireland. For the last year, particularly with the election of two new governments, both in Britain and Ireland, there has been a period of new momentum given to the peace process and the determination of Prime Minister Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern has brought us to what has got to be one of the most hopeful and historic opportunities in the peace process in our lifetimes. And the fact that we are able, over the course of these next two days, to have all of the party leaders here in Washington with the chance for us and the President to meet with them to talk to them about his hopes and aspirations and their views about how to move this process forward I think does give us a unique opportunity.

The two governments have made clear that they hope in just a matter of a few weeks, by mid-April, to try to bring the talks process to a conclusion. It's a process that we have been deeply involved in. The President, as you know, has placed a very high priority and emphasis on this. His visit to Northern Ireland I think both marked his personal commitment to try to help the process along, but also help symbolize the deep yearnings and aspirations of the people of Northern Ireland for a more hopeful and peaceful future. And we are going to try to use these meetings over the next two days to work in support of the two governments and all of the parties to try to help bring this peace process to an agreement in the coming weeks.

In terms of schedule, the President has cleared a considerable part of this schedule over the next two days to try to take advantage of the opportunity to meet with the party leaders. He will begin with a brief meeting this evening with the Sinn Fein leaders who are here, followed by meetings tomorrow that include a meeting with the Irish Taoiseach and the traditional presentation of the shamrocks tomorrow morning. The President will take part in the speakers' lunch tomorrow on the Hill. There will be a White House reception for all of the participants tomorrow evening, and he will also meet during the course of the late afternoon with a number of other party leaders, including the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the loyalist representatives from the UDP who are here, and he will see a number of the others in the course of the reception.

So it will be a very full period of time, and as I say, we will be moving forward with our efforts to try to convince the parties to take advantage of this opportunity. It's one that really presents a unique chance for people to move beyond the violence that we've seen over the last couple of weeks. And the President will also be giving a very clear message that there is no place for violence in this process, and that the United States stands very firmly with the two governments in making clear that parties who associate themselves with violence do not have any place. As much as we support and inclusive process, there needs to be a complete and absolute commitment to peaceful means of pursuing their goals.

I think that the continued violence that we've seen over the last couple of weeks has been a matter of great concern, but I think we all understand that the closer we get to an agreement the more those who have opposed peace and opposed a peaceful agreement for many years will try to turn their efforts to sabotaging any agreement that might be reached. And that's why it's so important for the parties themselves to make clear in word and deed their opposition to violence.

Let me leave it at that and take your questions.

Q Is this a matter of persuasion, or will you have -- will the President have some new ideas?

MR. STEINBERG: Well, I think there are a couple of things that the President can do. First of all, as you know, the United States for a number of years has been involved in trying to help support economic opportunity in Northern Ireland. This is something that dates back to the mid-1980s, but it's something that we have continued to pursue. The President appointed Jim Lyons as both his special representative for economic development in Northern Ireland, as well as continuing his role as the head of the International Fund for Ireland.

And so we will continue to be engaged in providing economic opportunity, and also in terms of providing political support for those parties and those individuals who are committed to the path of peace. And I think that, as you no doubt will hear from the parties themselves, that that commitment on the part of the United States and the strong coming together both by the administration and key members of Congress to get behind the idea of supporting a peaceful settlement has been a positive impulse throughout this process.

Q And the President's definitely going to Belfast?

MR. STEINBERG: The President has made no plans in terms of his own travel. He's made clear that as we move forward in the next couple of weeks, that we're hopeful that there will be an agreement. The governments have made clear that if there is going to be an agreement, that it will be subject to a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the President is prepared to do what he can and what makes sense in terms of trying to support that process. But whether that involves travel is something yet to be decided.

Q Can you give us any more guidance as to whether the President is going to Russia when he goes to the G-7 summit in May?

MR. STEINBERG: The President has made no decisions on travel to Russia. It's something that we obviously will continue to look at, but I think we've made clear that what we would most like to see is an opportunity to have a meeting in connection with the completion of the START II ratification by the Duma.

Q And just to follow up, that is what is not clear, whether he is saying that unless the Duma ratifies the START treaty, you can't go, or whether he just wants that to happen, but might still be able to go.

MR. STEINBERG: I think -- two separate points. One, we have no current plans to go in connection with the Birmingham meeting. Two, we believe that the right way to do this is in connection with the ratification. We've had some very positive indications, both from President Yeltsin and from the head of the Duma committee which is responsible for START II, Mr. Lukin, that there are reasonable prospects for moving forward. We very much hopeing that happens and that will set the stage for a very good summit meeting.

Q Is there a date for the China trip?

MR. STEINBERG: We do not have specific dates for the China trip. As you've heard before, our expectation is that it will come either the very end of June or possibly going into the early part of July.

Q Mr. Steinberg, as you've indicated, the President has devoted considerable time to the Northern Ireland peace process. But I wonder if there isn't an agreement by the May deadline whether we could expect the same level of interest and commitment. In other words, is his commitment open-ended, or could it be a considerably reduced and cut back if there wasn't a deal under the current timetable.

MR. STEINBERG: Well, I think the commitment is going to be an ongoing one, but I think the President is going to make clear his view, which I think is shared by the two governments, that the opportunity that exists now may not be nearly so strong in the future. And so while -- under no circumstances can I imagine that we would back away or the President would back away from his commitment to this, I think that parties are going to be, I think, held accountable by their own people in terms of the commitment and the effort they put into this now.

This is really their chance. It is an opportunity that is before them. It can't be made to happen. It's something that ultimately has to have ownership in Northern Ireland. And we're going to be urging the leaders to see this as an opportunity now that they ought to take advantage of.

Q Jim, there seems to be a sentiment of foot-dragging on the part of the parties on certain crucial issues. Is it fair to say the President will apply a bit of moral pressure when he meets with the party leaders over the next 24 hours?

MR. STEINBERG: I think the President is going to make clear that the window to take advantage of this opportunity now is a relatively short one and that they've really got to put their full efforts behind the resumption of the talks that will start back again on Monday; that this is a time in which they need to look beyond short-term calculations, they need to sort of lift themselves out of the weeds of the specific narrow issues that they're trying to resolve and look at the brighter future that's available to them.

The possibility of an agreement that is clearly in front of the parties is one in which everyone in Northern Ireland will benefit from -- both communities will benefit from. And that's the vision that he wants the leaders to keep in mind as they go into this very important final stage of the talks.

Q -- specifically what the President is going to tell Gerry Adams?

MR. STEINBERG: I think he is going to give Mr. Adams the same message that he gives to all the leaders, but I think he's going to make very clear that it is critical that the cessation of hostilities continue, that there is no place for violence, and that parties who want to participate in the political life of Northern Ireland need to be committed exclusively to peaceful means.

Thank you.

END 2:45 P.M. EST