independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Parties urged to act on consensus

Richard Haas,
Richard Haas

The former US diplomat who chaired Northern Ireland peace talks has urged political leaders to act where consensus exists.

Dr Richard Haass welcomed Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson's support for further efforts to narrow the differences between the five main parties.

Negotiations on contentious issues like parades, the flying of flags and dealing with the region's troubled past broke up on New Years Eve.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said unionists should be clear about whether they support the draft proposals for the future.

Dr Haass took to Twitter to exhort the parties to "act where consensus" exists.

The former US Government envoy to Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2003 has suggested significant progress was made during marathon talks, particularly in the area of dealing with the past.

Fierce violence blighted a minority of parades last summer's loyal order marching season following a decision to restrict the route of a procession past nationalist Ardoyne in North Belfast.

Earlier in the year loyalists fought sporadic battles with police after blockading roads in protest at a decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies from Belfast city hall.

An upsurge in attacks by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process and disputes over whether the perpetrators of troubles atrocities should be prosecuted or given immunity in exchange for information has provided an at-times stormy backdrop since Dr Haass and vice-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, with experience in rebuilding Iraq after the last war, were enlisted in July.

Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness commissioned the experienced pair to oversee negotiations which were intended to produce agreed recommendations for the Executive to act on.

They put the final 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 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 this year.

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.

Mr Adams said a meeting of his party's ruling executive was planned for January 11.

"Sinn Fein has stretched ourselves in these negotiations and we are up for this challenge. The other parties should not fudge their response. They should be clear," he said.

"Failure to reach agreement on these crucial issues will constantly bedevil the political process and make it difficult to reach agreements on social and economic issues that are essential for improving the quality of life for everyone.

"I would urge all citizens interested in building the peace to take the time to read the Haass proposals."

The UUP called a meeting of its executive body for Monday.

Leader Mike Nesbitt said members would reach a decision on the way forward.

"However, this was an initiative from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, and it falls to them to outline how they see this process moving forward," he said.

"The Haass talks were a critical element of their community relations policy, Together: Building a United Community.

"Another failure to create a truly shared future, rather than the current shared out future, cannot be tolerated."

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