Saturday 19 April 2014

Haass negotiations: NI political leaders publish draft agreement after talks fail

Northern Ireland's political leaders have published a draft agreement on outstanding peace process issues only hours after Executive parties failed to reach consensus on the proposals.The stalled blueprint for dealing with divisive problems around flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles was drawn up by former US diplomat Richard Haass, who chaired a six-month five-party talks process that ended at 5am this morning without a settlement.Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who had commissioned the one-time White House special envoy to oversee the negotiations, put the document on the website of their joint office so people could assess the plans for themselves.While Dr Haass did not meet his end-of-year deadline to achieve consensus on the long running disputes, his draft agreement could yet form the basis for a deal.The two nationalist parties - Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) - have signalled a willingness to back his proposals.The DUP and Ulster Unionists have acknowledged progress has been made and have pledged to take the document back for consultation with their respective party executives, but both have expressed major concerns about details of the paper as it stands. The cross-community Alliance Party said it would endorse the document's proposals on the past, but rejected the suggested resolutions on flags and parades in their current form. The parties are now set to establish a Stormont working group to try and finally reach an accommodation in 2014. But without the direction of such an experienced independent chair and with elections looming in May, some fear the window of opportunity may have passed. Before flying home to the United States, Dr Haass had urged Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to publish the document. "We believe that when this happens it will receive and enjoy considerable public support and it will help contribute to an already robust debate that is taking place in Northern Ireland about its past, its present and its future," he said early this morning. mflPage 2: 21:17The broad structure of the draft agreement was already largely in the public domain as a consequence of information leaks throughout the talks process. But as many of the stumbling blocks, particularly for unionists, appeared to lie not in the framework but in the detail, the publication of the full 40-page document should give the public a better sense of what exactly was on the table. The Haass process was set up in July to deal with what have become three of the primary obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Tensions over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while disputes over the flying of flags - both on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods - continue to be a source of community conflict. Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict where opposing sides retain competing narratives of what happened and victims still demand both truth and justice in relation to more than 3,000 unsolved murders. The draft's publication has confirmed what was already widely known in respect of flags - that any form of deal was not even close. The document instead envisaged the setting up of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the problem over a longer time frame - potentially 18 months. On parades, Dr Haass recommended the replacement of the oft-controversial UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events. This would consist of an administrative arm - the Office of Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests - to deal with applications to march and protest and potentially facilitate mediation between groups.It would also see the creation of the Authority for Public Events and Adjudication - an independent regulatory body, chaired by a legal figure, that would deliberate on applications for unresolvable parading disputes.Like the Parades Commission, it would have seven independent members, but the new authority would also provide more scope for appealing decisions.Detail around Dr Haass's proposal for a code of conduct for participants in parades and protests are understood to be one of the issues causing unionists concern, amid fears too much of the onus of responsibility will be borne by the Protestant loyal orders.On the past, the document proposes a new Historical Investigations Unit to take on the investigatory responsibilities of the police's Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman's office.For those victims searching the truth of what happened to their loved ones, even though justice has proved elusive, the draft deal proposes the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).This would encourage those involved in killings to provide details with the assurance that their revelations could not be used against them in a court of law - a form of limited immunity from prosecution similar to that offered to those who decommissioned weapons during the Troubles and those who passed on information on the location of secretly buried victims of republican paramilitaries.Controversially, the draft also bestows the ICIR with responsibility for assessing wider themes and patterns in the conflict - such as alleged state collusion with paramilitaries or alleged paramilitary ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted around the Irish border.It is understood unionists are unhappy at the number of potential themes suggested by Dr Haass that focus on alleged illegal activity by state forces.The proposals on the past also advocate improvement of services for victims, including mental health treatment, and the creation of a Troubles historical archive.


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