Haass returns to press parties for renewed effort on flags, parades and the past

Nationalists and unionists greet return of US talks duo as year’s-end deadline looms

 Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams:  Failure is not an option

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: Failure is not an option


Former US special envoy Richard Haass returns to Belfast today for more talks on issues which have proved intractable for the Stormont Executive.

Accompanied by Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan, Dr Haass is pushing the main Northern parties to reach agreement on parades, flags and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. Marathon talks chaired by them ended at 4am on Christmas Eve without agreement.

However, Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan said they would return if there was a prospect of agreement among the parties before their deadline of midnight on December 31st.

Issues concerning parades, flying of the union and other flags and the legacy of the Troubles have dogged the Executive for years. As a result First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called on Dr Haass to help negotiate solutions.

The former US diplomat last worked in Northern Ireland 10 years ago as president George W Bush’s special envoy to the peace process and is well acquainted with the parties.

Writing in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, the talks chair and co-chair said: “An agreement from these negotiations would not solve all the remaining problems but it would dramatically increase the odds that Northern Ireland begins to live up to its potential.

“The opportunity should be seized while it still exists.”

Their return has been welcomed by unionists and nationalists who insist agreement can yet be found.

Bilateral meetings
Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan have emailed a short list of questions to each of the party delegations asking them what they are prepared to agree to on each of the contested areas.

The parties were due to reply by email last night to the questions. These responses will set the tone for bilateral meetings between the parties and Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan as well as private meetings among the parties.

A formal plenary session of talks is pencilled in for later today and there is scope for discussions on a new draft of proposals, the fifth, throughout the weekend until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Talks participants have stressed that discussions did not break down in failure on Christmas Eve, insisting instead that delegates had to rest from negotiations.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt have issued statements talking up the chances of success given favourable circumstances.

The SDLP also believes agreement can be reached, but the party has criticised the British government, claiming it has distanced itself from the Haass-O’Sullivan initiative by insisting any new costs for mechanisms to deal with the past, flags or parades will have to be met from current budgets.

The Irish Government also privately believes a deal can be done and remains closely involved in the process.

Basis for a deal
In a statement Gerry Adams said: “Our delegation told the last plenary in the early hours of Christmas Eve that we believed there was the basis for an agreement on the mechanisms proposed to deal with the three issues under consideration.

“We would like to see some of these strengthened and have made a number of suggestions on how this can be achieved.”

Failure is not an option, said Mr Adams. “As the new year approaches there is a duty and responsibility on all the parties to these negotiations, despite the challenges, to find a way forward.

“With a fair wind the proposals under consideration can do this and I would appeal to everyone to overcome any difficulties which may remain. That is what the greater majority of our people expect.”

The Ulster Unionists said the litmus test for any agreement would be “whether it represents doing what’s right for Northern Ireland”.

Mr Nesbitt said: “That will be measured in whether it is fair to all our citizens and advances society in a manner that does not disrespect the rights and needs of victims and survivors, nor disregards the rule of law.”

He added: “As one of five parties to this process, we cannot guarantee agreement, but we can and do pledge to do all we can, as we did to bring about the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998.”

Some talks participants fear that progress may only be made on parades and on dealing with the past. Unionists are wary of any move which would limit the display of the union flag.