Haass to begin critical round of talks in Northern Ireland

US diplomat to meet political leaders from five main parties at hotel in Belfast


Dr Richard Haass is to begin the first round of critical talks aimed at resolving some of Northern Ireland’s most divisive issues.

The former US diplomat is jetting in from New York to meet political leaders from the five Stormont Executive parties at a hotel in Belfast city centre this afternoon.

The all-party talks will centre on three major problems not dealt with by the peace process — flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the legacy of the past, and will run until Friday.

Dr Haass will also meet senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties during a week-long series of engagements.

Another round of negotiations is expected next month with further substantive talks in November ahead of the December deadline for recommendations. Dr Haass, who was US envoy to Northern Ireland during George Bush’s presidency from 2001-03, has insisted he is determined to find consensus on the way forward by the end of the year.

Speaking from New York last week he said: “We will listen, we will suggest and as the process unfolds between now and the end of the year we will be making our recommendations. “The goal is to come up with a consensus document by the end of the year. That is what we are determined to attempt to do.”

The Haass talks are being billed as the most important since the Hillsborough negotiations when responsibilities for policing and justice were devolved to the power-sharing Stormont Executive.

They follow one of the most difficult summers in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Loyalist tensions over flags and parades sparked mass protests some of which boiled over into violence on the streets while republicans were heavily criticised by victims campaigners for holding an IRA commemoration parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone — a town which suffered significantly at the hands of paramilitaries during the Troubles.

At the Executive political relations between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin have also been strained and last month the DUP withdrew its support for a controversial peace centre on the site of the former paramilitary prison at the Maze in Co Antrim.

Meanwhile, the threat from dissident republican terror groups opposed to the peace process continues to remain severe. Last week Dr Haass met the First and Deputy First Ministers in New York for a two-hour meeting he described as “extremely useful”.