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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 17, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                           The Briefing Room   

7:15 P.M. EST

COLONEL CROWLEY: Just a reminder, this is on the record, but not on camera -- James Brady Steinberg returns to the podium to give a readout of this afternoon's meetings.

MR. STEINBERG: I keep my middle name for at least a few more hours. You've all heard from, I think, most of the people who have met with the President, so I think you already have a sense of the meetings. Just let me say that the President met with Seamus Mallon first, and then he met with David Trimble and several of his colleagues from the Ulster Unionist Party, and finally with Gerry Adams and several members of Sinn Fein.

I think there were very good and very constructive meetings in each case. I think that what they had all in common were an opportunity for the President to explore with the people who are most directly involved in the peace process their impressions about where we were, what the problems were that still needed to be overcome, and in particular, their insights as to sort of what problems they were dealing with in terms of trying to get the process to go forward, and problems that they were encountering and trying to get the President to listen to their perspective not only on each of the individual party's problems, but how they saw the other side's, the other party's problems, and trying to get a sense of the perspective, both the subjective and the objective perspective, as it were, of the situations they're facing.

I think the President made clear that we are very supportive of what had been done. Particularly with Seamus Mallon, they reviewed a bit of the processes that had gone forward with Seamus in his role as Deputy First Minister. There was a lot of emphasis on the sense that all of the parties had that the process had a lot of positive elements in it and a sense that while the challenges ahead were difficult, that there was a real commitment to take them on, to move it forward. And I think that in the watch word of the last several days for us, if we and others have been saying that failure is not an option, that it seemed to be a sentiment that was shared by all the parties. That there was a sense that while there were real problems, that they were determined that they could be worked out and that they would be worked out. And I think that was a very positive note in all of the meetings.

As I've told you all before, these were not negotiating sessions; the President didn't offer any specific proposals. But he did spend most of the time exploring in depth the perspective of each of the parties on the challenges ahead and what they thought was necessary to make the process go forward.

Let me take the questions.

Q From your analysis of what they told you, is there enough common ground to achieve agreement by the end of the month, to resolve the difficulties by the end of the month?

MR. STEINBERG: I think that they all understood, and I think it was particularly true in the conversations with Mr. Trimble and his colleagues, and Mr. Adams and his colleagues, that there was a need for solutions that were what the President called win-win solutions to these problems. And they both accepted that this was a process that needed to go forward with all sides feeling like they had gained from it moving forward, that that was the achievement that they had achieved at the Good Friday Agreement, and that that was the key to success here.

Q Let me just ask you, though, does the President accept that there's parity of the political reality attaching to the two cases advocated by Gerry Adams and Mr. Trimble?

MR. STEINBERG: I'm reluctant to use the word "parity" in any context. But he accepts the fact that there are political issues for both parties that need to be worked through and that the parties need to understand better the other side's political challenges. And so he very much understands -- I mean, the President is, after all, somebody who comes out of political life -- that there are political issues as well as sort of formal issues in the implementation that need to be addressed, and that they need to help each other address them.

Q What's going on to try and address those? What's the mechanism that's going to be used to address, to help each other more to resolve those problems?

MR. STEINBERG: I think the other thing that was very clear from the discussions, and I think it was also a very positive note, is the emphasis that they all placed on direct discussions between the parties, and that one of the things that has happened since the Good Friday Agreement -- and the President remarked that one of the things that was different now from a year ago is that at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, most of the negotiation was done indirectly, but now, there are more direct contacts directly between the parties, and that the President urged them to take advantage of that to try to work those problems together.

He said that the only way that you can really establish an organic process is for the parties themselves to work through these issues, to deal with each other directly, to understand each other better, understand the perspectives of each other better and to try to develop their own solutions; and that the role of the governments, including the United States, is to help support that process of their direct engagement.

Q With Trimble and Adams planning to meet while in Washington, is there any chance the President would get together with them again while they're here?

MR. STEINBERG: The President doesn't have any plans for any further meetings.

Q Can you give us a sense, Jim, of what the meetings were like? Trimble said, and Mallon said that he had a few discussions with Trimble, as Trimble was going in. Where did the meeting take place and what was the atmosphere, in kind of coming into the confessional booth and leaving, or what was it like?

MR. STEINBERG: The meetings were all in the Oval. And I think that there's -- I mean, one of the virtues of the fact that this is a regular process is that there's a very high degree of comfort, I think, between the President and the party leaders. They know each other fairly well. They have a long history and they're able to sort of pick up from where they left off. It's actually been less than a year since the President saw all of them in Northern Ireland, just six months ago. And so -- they really, sort of the sense of a continued discussion in which they can pick up from earlier discussions.

It's very informal, it's very relaxed. There's a lot of banter, but there's also a lot of sort of serious engagement. But it's certainly not at all -- I mean, coming to a confessional at all; it's really more parties who have accomplished a lot together working with the President and with each other and trying to figure out how to keep it going.

But again, I think what was especially important about the discussions was a real sense of commitment, I felt, I think the President felt, of all the parties to try to move this thing forward.

Q Is George Mitchell planning to take any part of these meetings, which may take place over the next day or so?

MR. STEINBERG: I'm unaware of George having any specific role, but I know that he's been talking to individuals, and he's certainly somebody whose advice the President seeks regularly.

Q Is the Canadian general who is overseeing decommissioning in town, and has he been taking part in any of the conversations, either with the White House or the parties who are here in town?

MR. STEINBERG: I'm not aware that he's in town and he's certainly not been formally part of any of the discussions here.

Q Is the deadline set by Prime Minister Blair helpful to the whole situation?

MR. STEINBERG: I think that's something for the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to make their best judgments about in their role about how to move this forward. I think our role is to support them as they make their judgments. It proved fairly effective last year, so I don't think we would be likely to second-guess them this time.

Q But is the reality now at the moment that there's very little room for maneuver here, and really -- you sound optimistic about it, but on the fringes it looks as if the process is going into some kind of soft landing.

MR. STEINBERG: I don't think I would accept either of those characterizations. I think that one of the things that was discussed among all the parties is precisely how to have enough room to maneuver so that people aren't boxed into corners, and that there are possibilities for win-win situations and to create the space for that to happen. And I think there was a receptivity to that.

Q Has there been any real tangible achievement to speak of?

MR. STEINBERG: I think the proof is always in the pudding. I think if you had asked a year ago after the meetings whether I could have said that there was anything specific that had come out, I would have been reluctant to make any predictions. I think we'll see in the next couple of weeks whether the discussions here have borne fruit. They certainly were constructive, but I think the proof will be in how the process moves forward, and if it does, hopefully this contributed to it.

Q At the present, I know you said that his role was listening and opening up discussion. But was there any specific ideas coming from your side on win-win -- possible ways you could have a win-win situation?

MR. STEINBERG: I'd say that was not the focus of the discussions, but to the extent that there were, it's probably best left to the parties and the discussion that the President had.

Q Did the President make any private pledges or assurances to any of those he met with this afternoon?

MR. STEINBERG: The only pledges and assurances he made was that we would be by their side as they moved this forward.

Q Was it the President's analysis that the decommissioning is still the key hurdle, and did he get any sense that there might be some movement on that?

MR. STEINBERG: I think that clearly decommissioning was something that was talked about in all the meetings, it clearly is one of the issues that needs to be worked. But I think again, there was a discussion about widening the space, understanding that there are multiple aspects to the agreement, and the importance of seeing decommissioning as one important, but one of many of the issues and aspects of the agreement that need to move forward.

I'll take two more because I've got to --

Q Is the President more optimistic after all of these meetings or is he --

MR. STEINBERG: He was just finishing the meetings and went on, so I'm reluctant to characterize his perspective until I've had a chance to talk to him about it.

Q Just to be crystal clear about this, are you saying the President isn't on David Trimble's side, and he isn't on Gerry Adam's side, he's somewhere in the middle?

MR. STEINBERG: I would say he's on everybody's side. And he's on the side of the people who made this process go forward. And I think I better leave on that note. (Laughter.)

END 7:25 P.M. EST