Doubts raised about potential of Haass talks in Northern Ireland

Robinson says DUP won’t discuss past until report is published on ‘on the runs’ controversy

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said his party would not discuss the past as part of the Haass  talks until Lady Justice Hallett’s report into the ‘on the runs’ controversy is published. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said his party would not discuss the past as part of the Haass talks until Lady Justice Hallett’s report into the ‘on the runs’ controversy is published. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 19:37

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has cast doubt on the potential value of political talks on the three Haass issues - parades, flags and the past - that are due to start later this month after he said the issue of the past could not be part of these negotiations.

On Monday Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore disclosed that the five main Northern parties and the British and Irish governments are to engage in two sets of three-day intensive talks this month on the past, flags and parades.

In Belfast Mr Gilmore said a deal could be achieved ahead of the height of the marching season next month when most forms of contentious politics must be put on hold.

Mr Robinson however has now stated that his party would not discuss the past as part of these talks until Lady Justice Hallett’s report into the “on the runs” controversy is published. That was due to happen at the end of this month but has been postponed again until an indefinite time, probably later in the summer.

Mr Robinson said it was disappointing that the Hallett report will not be completed before the end of June while adding “it is a positive signal that Lady Justice Hallett is taking the time necessary to examine all the necessary witnesses and consider all the relevant documentation”.

“We all want answers regarding the origin and administration of this corrupt scheme but we recognise that there is a delicate balance to ensure that the accuracy of the report is not compromised by an artificial deadline. We must be mindful of the volume of documents to be reviewed and have a full consideration of the facts,” he said.

“As I have already said publicly, until the Hallett inquiry report is published the DUP will not be engaging in the directly related discussions regarding the past.”

Notwithstanding the optimism that Mr Gilmore expressed on Monday there was considerable scepticism in Belfast that there could be any significant progress before the Twelfth of July. Mr Robinson’s declaration that the past can’t feature in this month’s talks, the dates of which have yet to be announced, has reinforced that pessimism.

There is potential however for the talks to create foundations for more productive negotiations that could take place after the summer recess. But even here there is concern that unionist electoral concerns ahead of the Westminster poll next year and the Assembly elections in 2016 could limit the chances of significant progress on these and other big issues over the next two years.

Notwithstanding Mr Robinson’s pronouncement the SDLP has demanded that the three issues including the past must be on the talks agenda this month. One of the party’s chief negotiators Alex Attwood said the talks should go ahead “without doubt, delay or impediment”.

“There should be no preconditions or an á la carte approach to the talks,” he said. “That is why Peter Robinson is wrong. Moreover, what comes after Hallett is published? Can the DUP be relied upon even then to address the past comprehensively and decisively?”

“The issue of the past cannot be put on the long finger. It must be dealt with up front, fully and squarely,” said Mr Attwood.

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