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Sunday 25 February 2018

More work needed for Northern Ireland deal - Robinson

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson

NORTHERN Ireland's First Minister has said much more work is needed to produce a deal on contentious parades, flags and dealing with a troubled past.

Peter Robinson said he had not thrown in the towel after talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass broke up on New Year's Eve without an all-party accord.


The Ulster Unionists have already said some of his proposals were unacceptable but Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has claimed they should be implemented as they stand.


Mr Robinson said: "While the final Haass document contains many propositions that the DUP can support and endorse, there remain others that would neither be an improvement nor workable and would not help in resolving the problems they were crafted to solve.


"We are satisfied that the broad architecture is capable of housing long-term workable arrangements, yet the detailed components as drafted which would determine how those structures would operate need much more work before they could function in the best interests of the community."


He said the party would continue to try to resolve outstanding issues.


"Unquestionably the work Dr Haass and his team have undertaken has narrowed the gap in a number of areas and our understanding of each party's position will aid future negotiations," he added.


Dr Haass was enlisted by Northern Ireland's ministerial Executive in July to broker a settlement on contentious issues which have sparked sectarian divisions and despite significant progress on dealing with the past the talks ended without any deal.


The negotiations followed months of sporadic loyalist violence over contentious parades, restrictions on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall and an increase in the number of bomb attacks by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.


Sinn Fein said they were prepared to sign up to the Haass proposals, but Mr Robinson's Democratic Unionists said they were not in a position to go ahead but he denied the process was a failure.


The East Belfast Stormont MLA has won unanimous backing from party officers to support an ongoing process and set up an all-party working group to resolve outstanding areas of disagreement and implement agreements when identified.


He thanked Dr Haass, a former Bush Administration envoy to Northern Ireland, and vice-chairwoman Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, who helped rebuild Iraq after the US invasion, for the time and effort they had devoted.


"We don't regard that as wasted time, in fact we have made valuable progress," he said.


He added: "There is a requirement for the panel itself to set out where there are disagreements and to see can we narrow it and close it. We are up for that job, we want to continue to make progress, we are not satisfied with the status quo.


"The work goes on. If this had not been a difficult task we would not have asked Richard and Meghan to assist us."


He said the DUP would not go "belly up" just because somebody puts a paper on their desks; his party had difficulties with how the Haass proposals would operate, not the broad architecture.


Mr Robinson warned responsibility lay on the five parties to determine what the next steps are; things were not "fine and dandy" and the parties needed to resolve issues which divided them.


Tensions over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while disputes over the flying of flags - on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods - cause community conflict.


Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict, with opposing sides retaining competing narratives of what happened and victims demanding truth and justice after more than 3,000 unsolved murders.


The document instead envisaged the establishment of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the flags problem over a longer time frame - potentially 18 months.


Dr Haass recommended the replacement of the 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, which 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 against decisions.


Following Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness' call for the parties to work with the agreement as it stands, Mr Robinson added nobody was entitled to second-guess whether any proposal had sufficient merit for any other party.


"That is a judgment we each are elected to make given our individual mandates. Any party's failure to agree to a proposal also reveals the failure of other parties to find a proposal capable of reaching wider agreement.


"This is self-evident and it is the reason why I am not impressed by any party hectoring about how others are to blame."


3A student leader said young people felt let down following the end of the negotiations.


National Union of Students/Union of Students in Ireland president Rebecca Hall said: "The parties' failure to reach an agreement also demonstrates how important it is that people are educated together in integrated schools, to dismantle the divisions that exist in our society.


"The Haass talks provided an excellent opportunity for Northern Ireland to sensitively address the most contentious issues preventing Northern Ireland from moving forward towards a shared future.


"This opportunity has been squandered, and in the week since the talks ended there has been little positive action."

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