US diplomat Dr Richard Haass was forced to alter his plans several times yesterday as he engaged in talks with the North's five main parties in an effort to strike a Christmas deal on parades, the past and flags.
As he wrote a fourth paper based on the contacts from the parties, he postponed the planned 11am plenary yesterday, with further postponements throughout the day.
He finally arrived after 8.30pm last night to chair all-party talks to see whether agreement on the three contentious issues might be achieved or whether Dr Haass might feel compelled to return to the United States today and then fly back to Northern Ireland to resume final talks shortly after Christmas Day.
"We will see how we will do, it's going to be an interesting evening," said Dr Haass, as he arrived at the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast at 8.35pm to begin talks with the five main parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.
The general mood from nationalist talks sources was that there was no reason why a deal should not be done by late last night or early today, while unionist sources were more cautious, warning it might take time after Christmas to determine if a deal could be done.
“There is no point in rushing a deal just to say you have a Christmas Eve agreement. It’s better to take more time if that is what it takes to get it right,” said one DUP source.
Dr Haass has told the parties that he wasn’t asking them to “agree to unreasonable things”. He has argued that as currently constituted the proposals would command “overwhelming” public support.
Implicit in Dr Haass's argument is that if a deal is agreed, it would be along the lines that he has already set down in the talks with the parties which he and Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan have chaired. Also implicit was his conviction that a deal should be done now rather than having to see the talks postponed and then resumed after Christmas.
The timings for key roundtable talks kept slipping back yesterday, reflecting the difficulties that the two unionist parties in particular – the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party – had with elements of the proposals. Dr Haass had planned to hold plenary talks at 11am yesterday based on a third draft paper that he wrote and presented to the parties at the weekend. By early yesterday morning, however, he realised this document would not lead to agreement.
Early yesterday Dr Haass tweeted: “Long day, but not yet where we need to be. Much to be settled before Christmas; won’t be easy, but surely worth it for Northern Ireland.”
Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan have accepted that they are not going to get agreement on flags in these talks and have decided to "park" the issue. They are proposing the creation of a Patten-style commission on identity, culture and tradition which would have until sometime in 2015 to report on a way forward on flags.
He has also proposed that this commission would deal with the Irish language and a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.
On the past there appears to be broad agreement on the creation of an all-embracing investigative body which would continue to inquire into Troubles-related killings. This would take over the work of the Historical Enquiries Team and also historical investigative work currently conducted by the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman.
A separate “commission for information retrieval” is also proposed. This would allow for “limited immunity” to those who were willing to provide information to victims and survivors about killings in which they were involved.
Victims would have the choice of whether or not they participated in this process.