Haass presses Stormont parties to find courage for agreement

US talks chair believes only extremism will benefit if opportunity to progress is lost

Mon, Dec 23, 2013, 00:33

The Haass talks enter a crucial make-or-break day today with negotiations beginning at 8am on three highly contentious areas which have thwarted the Stormont Executive for years.

Former US envoy Richard Haass and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan want agreement on the flying of flags, parades and matters to deal with the legacy of the Troubles by tomorrow night.

However their original deadline remains the end of this month and they are prepared to return to Belfast to help conclude a resolution after Christmas if needed.

Today they submitted their third proposals paper to the five executive parties. Dr Haass tweeted at 6.28am today: “up & working on new draft, integrating as best we can suggestions from parties. goal to produce/circulate new (3rd) draft early afternoon”.

That draft, understood to have made key fresh proposals on flags, was sent to the parties at lunch time. A separate process to tackle the flying of flags, which is of key importance to unionists, is thought to have been a key element in the third draft of the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals. Other amendments have been included to reflect feedback from the parties on the other two issues, parades and how to deal with the past.

Dr Haass has insisted that agreement, if it is found, will not be between the parties and himself. Rather it will be among the talks participants themselves. He has also insisted that the chances of success will not be enhanced by more time or more meetings. He believes progress on all three contentious issues is within reach tomorrow.

His most recent comments appear designed to press the talks participants towards agreement and he insists it is up to the parties and “how much they want agreement and how intolerable they find the status quo”.

On Friday Dr Haass said: “I don’t think we are asking people to agree to unreasonable things.”

He also said he believed his proposals, with some amendments, would have significant public endorsement. “I would predict that the agreement, assuming it looks more or less like it does today, with some additions or deletions, would receive overwhelming support,” he said.

Those “additions or deletions” have now been made and Dr Haass will doubtless reinforce his stated belief that a failure to achieve progress will only encourage extremists.

His approach appears to be supported by the findings of an Ipsos/Mori opinion poll published by the BBC early last week. On key proposals relating to dealing with the past, working on a Maze peacebuilding and reconciliation centre, parades, and flying the Union flag there was no outright public opposition. The poll appears to suggest that there is sufficient common ground between unionist and nationalist positions on which to take an agreed stance.

A well-placed Irish Government source has told The Irish Times he believes the public are ahead of the politicians and genuinely want to see progress now.

Former Church of Ireland primate Lord Robin Eames, who chaired a previous attempt alongside Denis Bradley to secure agreement on the legacy of the Troubles, has talked up the importance of concluding a deal.

He told BBC Northern Ireland: “A new generation is now in Northern Ireland that has not had to endure what we have seen in the past - they have a right to look forward to a future where there is some sort of security, stability and hope.

“I believe this Haass process has the opportunity now, if only we have the courage politically to grasp these possibilities, to put these things to bed.”

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