Haass confident progress on Northern Ireland ‘parades, flags and past’ can be made by end of year

First plenary session described as ‘positive and encouraging’, says former US special envoy

Dr Richard Haass insisted the Northern Ireland negotiations would finish and recommendations for future action would be published by the end of December. 
Photograph: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Dr Richard Haass insisted the Northern Ireland negotiations would finish and recommendations for future action would be published by the end of December. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 01:03



The first plenary session of talks involving the main Stormont parties to resolve problems linked to parades, flags and legacy issues have been described as “positive and encouraging” by the talks chairman.

Dr Richard Haass, a former special US envoy to the peace process 10 years ago, said the talks process has within it “a strong sense of possibility”.

He insisted the current negotiations would finish and recommendations for future action would be published by the end of December.

There would be no need to extend the deadline, he said. What was possible to achieve was possible by the end of the year and would not need any longer, he said.

Despite the problems evident after a summer scarred by violent scenes, he said he would not have accepted an invitation from the North’s political leaders to chair the process unless he had a strong sense that progress could be achieved.

However, he also warned that international television images of street disturbances and reports of ongoing community tensions were deeply damaging to Northern Ireland from an economic perspective.

Dr Haass, chair of the independent New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, and Prof Meghan O’Sullivan, an experienced diplomat, say that progress can be made.

Prof O’Sullivan said that of the three central problems – parades, flags and the past – the past is by far the most complex. She said the boundaries of the difficulties were much more “nebulous” and difficult to define. Dr Haass agreed, saying it was “hard to overestimate how complex some issues are”.

He said the talks process was not one of “knocking heads together” and repeated that both “the substance and tone of the talks” had been very encouraging.

Stormont’s five-party Executive is under considerable internal strain due mainly to deteriorating relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Tensions increased following the difficult marching season, a controversial republican commemoration in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, and the subsequent decision by First Minister Peter Robinson to renege on his party’s commitment to back a conflict resolution and peace centre at the site of the former Maze/Long Kesh. Sinn Féin is particularly keen to see the development proceed.

Next year sees key local government and European elections which will heighten the political atmosphere, especially with talk within the DUP about a possible successor to Mr Robinson as leader.

Yesterday’s plenary session followed an intensive round of meetings in Northern Ireland since the arrival of Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan last Tuesday. More than 30 meetings had been held involving more than 100 individuals, they said.

He will return to Ireland next month and again in November for further meetings. More talks are scheduled including meetings in both Dublin and London as well as a series of outreach sessions around Northern Ireland and outside Belfast.

Quoting his former boss in the US State Department, Colin Powell, Dr Haass said that “capital is a coward” and that the violent scenes broadcast around the world from Belfast during the summer months would have a damaging effect on those trying to attract foreign direct investment and create jobs.