Northern Ireland talks 'déjà vu, all over again'

Haass talks
Image caption It is hoped the Haass talks will reach agreement before Christmas

"Now is not the time for soundbites". That's what Tony Blair famously said before a previous crunch session of Northern Ireland negotiations.

The former prime minister obviously didn't take himself too seriously as he then immediately delivered his "hand of history" line for the cameras.

Outside the Haass talks at Belfast's Stormont hotel, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson took the Blair line rather too literally.

Thirty seconds after we all turned our cameras off, he quipped: "Christmas should be a time for square boxes and red hats, not square brackets and red lines."

The quote exists in print and in the ether, but not on video. In this televisual age, 30 seconds after the cameras are switched off is definitely not the time to deliver your carefully prepared sound bite.

When it comes to timing, the Haass talks leave something to be desired.

The negotiators' urge to be with their families for Christmas and the New Year creates a sense of pressure, which could prove useful for brokering a deal.

However, if the gaps remain too wide to sell a deal to their supporters, then a desire to head home or a seasonal feeling of goodwill isn't going to be sufficient to persuade the parties to sign on the dotted line.

Rubik's cube

Richard Haass makes the point that he isn't chairing a commission speaking truth unto power, but working with those who wield power to help them put together an agreement which can be delivered.

Perhaps the best analogy is a jigsaw or a Rubik's cube - you can manipulate the pieces or squares in different ways, but if you try to solve a problem in one area it could put matters out of joint elsewhere.

In his Friday night news conference Dr Haass acknowledged that progress has been made on the past and parades, but the flags issue remains deadlocked. So can two thirds of a deal be implemented and one third be - as the UUP's Mike Nesbitt suggests - "parked"?

That might appear common sense, but talk to nationalist and Alliance negotiators and you'll hear them argue for a comprehensive deal.

'It ain't over 'til it's over'

One source told me that if unionists get what they want by replacing the Parades Commission, but the flags quarrel is left unresolved, then a bit of bargaining leverage will have been given away for nothing.

So could the negotiators move ahead with just one third - the past? If they did this would be more progress than many thought possible at the start of the process. However it would risk leaving the primary causes of this year's street disorder untouched.

Fond of quoting the US baseball player Yogi Berra, Richard Haass reminded me that "it ain't over 'til it's over".

Pondering another long wait for Northern Ireland negotiators to emerge from a building clutching a paper which may turn out to be deal or no deal, another Yogiism comes to mind "it's déjà vu, all over again".