Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass talks a shambles so far – but there's a chance to rescue something

Former US diplomat Richard Haass and Vice-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan at a press conference at the Stormont Hotel last night as he attempts to reach an agreement with Northern Ireland's five main parties continue
Former US diplomat Richard Haass and Vice-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan at a press conference at the Stormont Hotel last night as he attempts to reach an agreement with Northern Ireland's five main parties continue
Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan talk to the media in the early hours of Monday at the Stormont Hotel after the parties failed to reach agreement

The one word text message sent to my phone soon after the Haass talks broke up in the early hours of Christmas Eve probably said it all.

It read "shambles".

The message was sent by someone who knows this process inside out – its wording and redrafting and rewriting across those issues of flags, parades and the past.

And while they would never use that description, who could blame the diplomat Dr Richard Haass and talks vice chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan if they chose not to return to Belfast to give this process one last try.

At around 4.30am on Tuesday, Dr Haass told us: "I'm not in the business of doing post-mortems, because the patient is still alive.

"I'm tired. I'm not depressed," he told the journalists who had waited for his latest words on whether a pre-Christmas deal could be done, or whether this ambitious initiative would need some more time.

In terms of Haass/O'Sullivan involvement, it doesn't have much more time.

A few days, if that, starting this weekend and ending before the New Year. Both have other work commitments.

And both will decide based on responses to draft 5 of a document which will be sent to the parties whether another Belfast visit might change the outcome of this long talking/negotiation initiative.

Alliance MP Naomi Long said she believed the process was now "on life support".

As the US team and the political parties lined up to talk to the media in those early hours of Christmas Eve and after a long day and long night of negotiations, there really only was one question.

What could Haass and O'Sullivan put on the table after Christmas that wasn't already on the table?

Everyone knows the answer to that question is nothing significantly different to what is already there.

Indeed, Ms Long said what was needed was a "substantive and changed attitude around the table".

What that means is this process is now about political will – local decision-making and leadership.

After draft 5, Haass and O'Sullivan will probably have done all the rewriting and re-wording they can do.

So, there are decisions to be made – on the package on the past, on the restructuring of the parades framework and on the proposal to push the flags issue into a Commission on Culture, Identity and Traditions.

The Irish language and Bill of Rights would also become part of that longer-term initiative.

Surprisingly, given the thinking and assessment at the beginning of this process, most progress seems possible on the past.

The Haass/O'Sullivan plan is for an Historical Investigations Unit, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval using a limited immunity scheme, and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group to monitor progress.

Where there is continuing concern is for plan to establish an Advisory Group of experts to look at patterns and themes in the conflict period.

Unionists still fear a rewriting of history.

Overall, this is no longer about Haass and O'Sullivan. They have done just about as much as they can in shaping documents and proposals.

That package on the past would put back into play much of the shelved Eames-Bradley report. It would represent progress and leadership – and that would start to turn shambles into something more like success.

There is not much time to save something in this process.

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