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Haass negotiations: NI peace talks end in stalemate

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Dr Richard Haass and Harvard Professor Meghan O'Sullivan arrive at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.

Dr Richard Haass and Harvard Professor Meghan O'Sullivan arrive at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.

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Dr Richard Haass and Harvard Professor Meghan O'Sullivan arrive at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.

Marathon all-night negotiations to resolve outstanding peace process issues in Northern Ireland have failed to produce an agreement.

Talks chairman Dr Richard Haass, a former US diplomat, said he had not managed to secure consensus on a final set of proposals to deal with flags, disputed parades and the legacy of the Troubles before his end-of-year deadline.

Dr Haass said a working group made up of representatives of the five parties in Stormont's power-sharing executive would now be set up to try and find another way to build on "significant progress" that had been achieved.

Negotiators from Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in the Executive, said they were prepared to recommend the proposals to its ruling executive, but unionists would not sign up to the document tonight.

"Yes it would have been nice to come out here tonight and say we have got all five parties completely signed on to the text, we are not there," Dr Haass said.

Dr Haass, who was commissioned by Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to chair the six-month process, said he believed there was a prospect that all the parties would either endorse all, or significant parts of his document in the future.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists said they would consult within their parties before making a final judgment on the proposals but both indicated they had major difficulties with elements of the text.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) said it would also be conducting a consultation, but party leader Alasdair McDonnell said he would be recommending a general endorsement of the proposals.

Dr Haass urged Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to make the details of the final document public so people could make up their own minds.

He denied the process had been a failure.

"Success should not be measured by what we report to you tonight or what the party leaders report tonight - I would ask you to judge the success in six months, in a year, 18 months, in two years, that would give a much more realistic definition or yardstick of what constitutes success," he said.

"What I believe what we have done is laid down solid enough foundations stones."

Dr Haass and talks vice-chairman Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, a US foreign affairs expert, said their role in any future political process would be limited, but both insisted they were not washing their hands of the process.

Alliance party deputy leader Naomi Long, who along with colleagues was mandated to make a final call on behalf of the party, said she was willing to endorse proposals on the past, but not on flags and parades.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams signalled his party's willingness to strike a full deal.

He said the proposals presented by Dr Haass represented a "compromise position" and provided the basis for agreement.

"They aren't perfect, we have had to stretch ourselves to embrace them," he said.

Mr Adams insisted talks could not continue forever and at some point parties had to "call it".

"The paper produced by Dr Haass does in the view of our negotiating team provide the basis for agreement," he said.

He said if there was no progress from this point he would be seeking an urgent meeting with the British and Irish governments to call for the production of a road map towards resolution.

DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said progress had been made but said a number of difficulties remained.

"We do not have an agreement this evening but we are committed to continuing this work beyond now in dialogue with others to try and resolve the outstandiing issues that need to be addressed," he said.

"We owe that to the people of Northern Ireland, especially to the innocent victims of terrorism who have suffered so much over the decades."

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.

But 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 regarding thousands of unsolved murders.

Dr Haass had initially hoped to strike a comprehensive settlement dealing with all three elements in full, but it became clear from the outset of the intensive negotiation phase earlier this month that was going to be highly unlikely.

The last day of negotiations began around 10am yesterday and effectively carried straight through to around 5am this morning.

There was little or no progress made on flags with a proposal to set up a commission to examine the issues over a longer term.

It is understood the document also proposes the replacement of the Government-appointed Parades Commission with another set of structures to adjudicate on contentious marches.

The text also envisaged a new mechanism to oversee dealing with the legacy of the past - with a truth recovery body that would potentially offer limited immunity from prosecution to those who co-operate.

Unionists have indicated concerns with some of the language used and claimed too much focus has been placed on killings perpetrated by state forces.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he had an opinion on the document but would not make it public until his party had the chance to examine the proposals.

"We will have an honest debate and hopefully form a final opinion at the end of that debate," he said.

Mr McDonnell said "bigger and better solutions" were needed on some aspects, but said he would be recommending that his party give a general endorsement to what had been proposed.

While Mrs Long criticised proposals on parades and flags, she said great work had been done in the past.

"We have seen a huge sea change in the level of political agreement which has exceeded public expectation, particularly in delivering for the victims and the reconciliation process," said the East Belfast MP.

Having been given an end-of-year deadline to report, Dr Haass had aimed to strike a deal before Christmas but had to return to the US on Christmas Eve empty-handed after a marathon session of all-night negotiations last week.

Cutting short his seasonal break, he returned to the region on Saturday in a last-ditch bid to secure agreement.

Dr Haass is the president of US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York, and was US president George W Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003.

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Haass negotiations: NI parties under pressure to reach settlement

Representatives of the five main political parties in Belfast are facing mounting pressure to reach some sort of settlement on dealing with contentious parades and the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past. With the former US envoy Richard Haass due to return to the US tomorrow, all sides have until later today to come to an agreement. As he headed to the negotiating table at an hotel in east Belfast this morning, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, a member of the Stormont Assembly, said: "There are issues that can be sorted if the political will is there." The White House and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers have already urged the parties to come to an agreement. The issue surrounding the flying of flags is deadlocked but there is optimism there will be progress on parades and the past. Dr Haass - president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and an envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003 - and his vice chairman Professor Meghan O'Sullivan returned to Belfast after the talks broke up just before Christmas. Today, the parties discussed a sixth draft set of proposals put forward by Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan, a Harvard professor with experience in post-conflict Iraq. They were asked last July by First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to submit recommendations for dealing with the region's unresolved issues. It will be hugely embarrassing for the Stormont executive if the parties fail to meet today's deadline for a settlement. Dr Haass has warned them it is time to "fish or cut bait". On Saturday, Mr Robinson said parts of the proposed agreement were "unworkable". Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, whose party represents most nationalists, has said a deal can be done and appealed to talks participants to overcome their differences. All parties agree that the views of victims should be integral to any process for dealing with the past, but it has been difficult to decide what that mechanism should be, whether limited immunity from prosecution should be offered to those who give information about shootings, bombings and other atrocities, and what powers any new commission for investigating the past should have. A replacement for the Government-appointed Parades Commission, which was heavily criticised by unionists after it rerouted a loyal order parade away from the nationalist Ardoyne part of North Belfast last summer following years of annual violence on July 12, was one of the keys issues discussed today. Ms Villiers said: "From my many conversations on this over recent days, I am encouraged about the prospects for agreement, although some key issues are yet to be resolved, particularly on the past."