Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Only day that matters in Richard Haass negotiations is last day... and it's looming into view

Loyalist protesters wave union flags  at Belfast City Hall on November 30, 2013. The subject of flags has proved to be a major sticking point for Richard Haass
Loyalist protesters wave union flags at Belfast City Hall on November 30, 2013. The subject of flags has proved to be a major sticking point for Richard Haass

In the biting December cold of the Haass talks it is maybe not surprising that some of the participants were yesterday starting to ask about the "hothouse" phase of these negotiations.

It is the moment when bottom lines will be tested and decisions have to be made.

That moment is coming and, in the run-up to Christmas, many will be hoping it is coming sooner rather than later.

The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was one of those looking for shelter from the outside cold, and waiting for that point in this process when top lines will be moved towards those bottom lines.

Whatever the talk about seeking comprehensive agreements across the three issues, realistically getting progress on two is probably the best that can be hoped for at this time.

And it is on the subject of flags – what to fly and when to fly – that the talks trenches have been dug deepest.

But what if meaningful progress can be made in those other areas of parades and the past?

The answer to that question is it would be worth having, and this Haass/O'Sullivan initiative will have delivered.

Queen's University academic Kieran McEvoy spent a little time chatting to journalists at the talks venue yesterday.

And he believes if the Haass/O'Sullivan proposals for an Historical Investigations Unit and Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) are implemented, then significant progress will have been made.

"It acknowledges that the piecemeal approach to the past is not working," he told this newspaper.

Professor McEvoy is an expert on the range of amnesty and immunity models and how they can fit into information or truth recovery processes.

The Haass/O'Sullivan proposal is for a type of limited immunity to be used.

"If you have an amnesty, essentially you can't be prosecuted," the Queen's academic said.

"If you have limited immunity, you can be prosecuted – theoretically, but highly unlikely," he continued. And this is a reality that has to be faced – that any examination of the past will not fill the jails.

The Historical Investigations Unit keeps open the road to justice, but the route of information retrieval may be the one that delivers some greater explanation and understanding of the conflict years.

In terms of the next decision moment in the process, that will come on Monday after the parties have scrutinised a third draft paper from the US team.

Meghan O'Sullivan said yesterday they hoped that would be close to a final draft.

The parties will have it tomorrow and will be brought round the table on Monday. That might be the hothouse phase.

Dr Haass told journalists there was only one day that matters in any negotiation: "It's the last day."

But will Monday be that last day of these talks or will the contingency to negotiate further between Christmas and the New Year have to be used?

Haass and O'Sullivan know they can't impose a deal – but they believe their proposals would win overwhelming support if tested across the communities.

The final, final deadline is the end of this year.

Whatever happens, we won't have long to wait to see the outcome of this negotiation.