Northern Ireland

Fourth Haass draft studied by NI political parties

Photo of round-table talks from 22 November
The parties have held a series of round-table talks in recent months

The Stormont parties are currently studying revised proposals from the former US diplomat Richard Haass on dealing with the past.

The section on the past was the first part of a fourth version of the Haass document.

The timetable for the talks was revised for a second time on Monday.

Originally, a round-table session had been scheduled for 11:00 GMT, however, it was later shifted to 18:00 GMT then to 20:00 GMT.

Dr Haass and Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan were brought to Northern Ireland in July by the first and deputy first ministers, with an aim of finding consensus on flags, parades and the past by the end of the year.

The delays on Monday appear to reflect the difficulties facing Dr Haass and his co-chair, Dr O'Sullivan, in bridging the gaps between the parties.

The details of the latest draft on the past are not yet clear, but some unionist sources expressed concerns about the power apparently being given to a new Historic Investigations Unit to compel witnesses to give evidence.

Previously retired police officers have opposed similar powers being handed to the Police Ombudsman.

However, a senior nationalist source argued that any such power would be balanced by the ability of a proposed truth retrieval body to grant limited immunity on any evidence it gathers.

On Monday afternoon, Dr Haass took to Twitter to say his team was "still hard at it".

He added that it was difficult to imagine a better Christmas present for one and all.

Dr Haass, a former US diplomat, gave the parties a third draft document on Sunday.

The new, 30-page document recommends a separate process to deal with flags, as the parties could not reach consensus on the issue.

Unionists had rejected a previous draft because of concerns about flags.

Their objections had centred on the suggestion of a licensing scheme that would have meant permits being issued for the flying of flags on the streets.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said some progress had been made but, "realistically, it's going to be a challenge to get agreement before close of play".

"I would hope that even today, it might still be possible to reach agreement, at least on parades and dealing with the past and agreement on how we move forward on the other issues," he said.

Mr Donaldson said Dr Haass had indicated that if agreement was not reached before Christmas, talks would resume on 27 and 28 December.

'Go home'

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said on Sunday that he was "not happy, but happier" with the latest proposals.

"This Haass Three does not anticipate an agreement among the parties on how to deal with flags during the timeframe of this process and therefore there wouldn't be a link between flags and parades," Mr Nesbitt said.

Meanwhile, his party colleague Michael Copeland has apologised for saying that Dr Haass should "go home and leave us who live here to mend our ways".

The East Belfast UUP MLA was speaking at a loyalist rally in north Belfast at the weekend.

Mr Copeland made the remarks as he criticised Dr Haass' proposal to license the flying of flags.

In a statement on Monday, the UUP MLA said: "I deeply regret any offence taken by anyone following my comments at the weekend, for none was intended."

Mr Copeland said he had spoken "as I always do from the heart" but added that he "intended no disrespect to Mr Haass".

"I fully support the efforts of my party leader and the others involved in this process," Mr Copeland said.

Christmas deadline

Politicians have been providing feedback on the proposals to Dr Haass and his team, and a revised version will form the basis for Monday's round-table talks.

Plans for councils to carry out an audit on what memorials they have on their premises has also been removed from the latest round of the diplomat's proposals.

The SDLP's Alex Attwood said that for his party, dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland remained the most difficult issue.

"The big test is going to be the past and dealing with that, as we've always said, in a comprehensive and ethical way, so that people know that in going forward the truth of the past is going to become known," Mr Attwood said.

On Friday, Dr Haass said he would leave "no stone unturned" in an effort to reach an agreement with the parties before Christmas.

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