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Thursday 19 April 2018

The three issues which prevent progress in Northern Ireland

Former US diplomat Richard Haass speaking to the media at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, on his return to Belfast to resume talks aimed at solving some of Northern Ireland's most contentious issues
Former US diplomat Richard Haass speaking to the media at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, on his return to Belfast to resume talks aimed at solving some of Northern Ireland's most contentious issues

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called on the diplomatic experience of former White House special envoy Richard Haass in an effort to finally achieve agreement on three divisive issues that for years have inhibited progress toward meaningful reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

1. Parades:

While nationalists do hold a number of commemorative parades, the vast majority are organised by the Protestant loyal orders, most taking place during the summer months.

Thousands pass off without incident but tensions around a small number of parades whose routes are opposed by resident or campaign groups often prove the trigger for violence and disorder on the streets.

Mass loyalist rioting erupted in north Belfast in July when an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing by the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood.

Loyalist protesters have maintained a presence at a so-called "civil rights" camp at the scene ever since. Republicans rioted in Ardoyne in previous years when the Orange parade was permitted to pass.

The Parades Commission, the Government-appointed panel that adjudicates on contentious marches, has long been the bete noire of the loyal orders, which accuse it of curtailing their right to cultural expression.

2. Flags:

The flying of flags has always been a source of antipathy across the political divide but it has become a major bone of contention since December last year when Belfast City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union flag above City Hall.

Loyalist rioting ensued across Belfast and beyond, and flag protesters continue to picket outside the landmark building every Saturday.

Along with restrictions on parades, loyalists portray the decision of the council to stop flying the flag all year round as part of what they claim is a sustained attack by nationalism on their British cultural identity.

Tensions around flags are not confined to official protocols at public buildings as thousands of Union flags and Irish Tricolours are flown on lamp posts and house fronts in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods across the region.

Supporters of the phenomenon insist it is a benign way of expressing national identity but its critics allege a more sinister motive, claiming flags are used to mark territory and inhibit the creation of shared communities.

3. The past:

While flag and parade disputes have sparked episodes of serious public disorder, the issue of the past is arguably still the most emotive facing post-conflict Northern Ireland.

With more than 3,000 killed during the Troubles and the majority of murders still unsolved, countless bereaved continue to campaign for both truth and justice. Meanwhile, thousands injured in the violence still suffer the physical consequences.

An agreed mechanism to address the legacy of the conflict has always proved elusive.

An ill-fated set of proposals in 2009 floundered on the controversial suggestion to pay all those bereaved in the conflict, including relatives of paramilitaries, a £12,000 acknowledgement payment.

In a clear indication of the potential of the past to destabilise the present, many victims' families reacted with fury last month when Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC called for an end to prosecutions, inquests and public inquiries in all Troubles-related crimes, insisting a line in the sand should be drawn at the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

Press Association

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