NI Haass talks: No agreement after Saturday meeting

Richard Haass: "What we are trying to do is build the peace"

Talks aimed at solving some of Northern Ireland's most contentious issues ended on Saturday without agreement.

The five main parties will meet again early on Monday to discuss parades, flags and dealing with the past.

Talks chairman, former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, returned to Belfast on Saturday after efforts to reach a deal before Christmas had failed.

He said he was back "for one final effort to help reach agreement".

Dr Haass and his co-chairman, Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan, are due to leave Northern Ireland before the new year.

No further all-party talks are scheduled beyond Monday's session, which begins at 06:00 GMT.

But some of the parties will meet on Sunday, and the DUP, the main unionist party, had bi-lateral talks with Dr Haass on Saturday night.

Before Saturday's round-table talks began, Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's first minister and leader of the DUP, said some elements of the proposals were "unworkable".

He said: "There's a large part of the document I could readily bring to the party, there are other elements that render the rest unworkable.

'Terrible embarrassment'

"I hope he (Haass) will be able to see a conclusion and we're still optimistic it can be reached, but it won't be reached by us fudging issues or doing something more abruptly than we would otherwise want to."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, from the main nationalist party Sinn Féin, said: "I just think that for Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan to leave here without making an agreement would be a terrible embarrassment for politicians, for the process, and would clearly show a lack of leadership qualities in terms of facing up to these very difficult challenges."

Who is Richard Haass?

  • Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University
  • Special assistant to US President George HW Bush from 1989 to 1993
  • Principal adviser to US Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2001 to 2003
  • Also President George W Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003
  • Well acquainted with the political geography of Northern Ireland
  • President of independent think-tank Council on Foreign Relations since 2003.

Prior to Saturday's six-hour meeting Prof O'Sullivan had said: "By Monday we will know whether an agreement is to be had or not."

Dr Haass said the talks were "a final opportunity to come together in an agreement that we believe could and would change Northern Ireland for the better, both for individuals and for society writ large.

"We hope this opportunity is seized, as time does not work in anyone's favour.

"The last year has shown that flags and parades have the potential to further inflame an already divided society.

"Time also works against the ability to capture the past, as memory fades, as evidence is lost and lives end."

Asked if this was his final effort, Dr Haass used an American phrase: "You either fish or you cut bait." He said that time had come.

Dr Haass and Prof O'Sullivan were brought to Northern Ireland in July by the first and deputy first ministers.

Tensions heightened

They returned to the US for Christmas after talks broke up without agreement in the early hours on Christmas Eve.

"By noon on Monday we will have had 12 hours of plenary, it will be hard at that point, given everything that will have gone before, to argue that the missing ingredient is more time," Dr Haass said.

The parties were given a fifth draft of proposals from Dr Haass and Prof O'Sullivan on Friday night.

Tensions over flags were heightened in December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to only fly the union flag from city hall and other council buildings on 18 designated days - previously it had flown continuously.

The decision was condemned by unionist politicians, and it sparked street protests, some of which were violent and led to the injury of more than 100 police officers.

Union flag protester at Belfast City Hall Flags are seen as important expressions of cultural identity in Northern Ireland, with Unionists and Protestants generally giving allegiance to the union flag.

BBC Ireland correspondent Chris Buckler said the parties seemed deadlocked over displaying flags and the issue was likely to be moved into a completely separate process.

Even with an extra few days of negotiation, achieving a deal on that particular issue would be a challenge, he added.

Dealing with the legacy and aftermath of Northern Ireland's Troubles is another difficult issue to resolve.

Unsolved murders

More than 3,500 people died during the Troubles, and in almost 3,300 cases there were no prosecutions.

A Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was set up to investigate unsolved Troubles murders, but has itself proved controversial.

All political parties agree that the rights and feelings of victims should be at the centre of any process.

What the process should be, and exactly how a victim is defined, however, have proved almost impossible to agree.

Parades meanwhile, are usually connected to the unionist, or Protestant, community.

Orange Order parade The majority of Orange Order parades are not contentious

Most are organised by the Orange Order or other religious/cultural organisations, and the majority are not contentious.

But those that pass by, or through, nationalist areas, can be controversial.

Many nationalists feel that parading is an expression of historic unionist domination over nationalists in Northern Ireland.

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