Haass steps up pressure on Northern Ireland talks

Haass: seeking full agreement. Picture: PA
Haass: seeking full agreement. Picture: PA
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FINAL agreement on dealing with Northern Ireland’s troubled past, parades and flags must be struck by tomorrow, the independent chair of all-party talks has said.

Measures intended to ease months of simmering resentment and violence are extraordinarily close to gaining support, said Richard Haass, adding that the missing ingredient was not more time and urging politicians to grasp the opportunity to do a deal.

A marathon session starting at 6am tomorrow will bring six months of increasingly intense negotiations to a head after Haass cut short his Christmas break to kick-start one last round of discussions.

He said: “At some point we have got to fish or cut bait, that time has come.”

Former US diplomat Haass and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan were asked by Northern Ireland’s ministerial executive in July to lead talks after a violent summer of parade and protest.

Serious loyalist rioting broke out a year ago after restrictions were imposed on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.

This summer’s marching season sparked discord after a decision was taken to re-route a loyal order parade away from a traditional scene of violence in north Belfast.

The talks were intended to provide a framework for when contentious flags can be flown, for dealing with the victims of 30 years of violence which produced more than 3,000 lost lives, and for creating consensus on a new body to decide where members of the loyal orders and republicans can march.

Haass said an accord was close on parades and dealing with the past, but warned a deal on flags has been more challenging. He added they were difficult, but not intractable, problems.

“What we are trying to do is build the peace, to go from ambiguity that may have been constructive once but is no longer, to reach a specificity. We believe the draft agreement represents constructive specificity.”

O’Sullivan said there was a need for and a possibility of a meaningful agreement, envisaging it could set an example and inspire others engaged in peace-making.

Haass said Monday was their absolute deadline: “It will be very hard at that point to argue that the missing ingredient is more time, there has been an enormous amount of time invested. The issues have been worked over from every conceivable angle.”

He added: “We are not going to reach the point where 
everyone is going to be thrilled with everything.

“We have essentially come to that point, that we have an agreement that is extraordinarily close to a final agreement that would leave both the people as individuals and society as a whole far better off.”

The team has refined its proposals into five draft agreements and another is expected before a final deal can be struck.

Haass said he was not prepared to reach separate accords on flags, parades or dealing with the past, insisting that any deal would be a comprehensive one.