Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The outcry from victims has registered with Richard Haass, says SDLP

US diplomat Richard Haass
US diplomat Richard Haass

With critical talks on Northern Ireland's violent past set to intensify ahead of a December deadline, the SDLP has said the will of victims and survivors "must prevail".

Party negotiator Alex Attwood was speaking after another meeting with the US team chairing the negotiations – talks focused on the unfinished business of the peace process.

Yesterday's meeting came just 24 hours after Attorney General John Larkin made his controversial proposal for a line to be drawn under all conflict-era investigations.

But Mr Attwood said the talks being led by former diplomat Dr Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan must deliver "a comprehensive, ethical outcome based on truth, justice, accountability and acknowledgement".

The Stormont MLA believes Dr Haass is now exploring all options including what a "maximum outcome" might be.

"He's interrogating what all the potential features could look like without outlining what his real thinking is," Mr Attwood said.

"He has to listen to the parties, but take his lead from the community – especially the victims community."

But what if the Haass talks on flags, parades and the past cannot achieve a consensus among the Executive parties?

"He should make the recommendations anyway," Mr Attwood responded.

His party colleague Joe Byrne added: "We think the outcry on Larkin from the victims has registered with Haass and O'Sullivan."

The DUP also met the US talks team yesterday, and afterwards MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "The responses to the Attorney General's comments show the strength of opposition to a blanket amnesty."

He added there was no support for the proposal "at any significant political level".

These negotiations are not just about the past – but the issue is dominating the discussions both inside and outside the talks room.

Yesterday, the Victims' Commissioner Kathryn Stone and members of the Victims' Forum held meetings with the Haass negotiating teams from all five Executive parties.

And all five of those parties will again be round the table with Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan today – an all-party session that will set the scene for two weeks of hothouse negotiations next month.

"The discussions are becoming more detailed," Mr Donaldson said yesterday, "and we are getting into the meat of the issues now."

But can a consensus be achieved by the December deadline?

"That remains to be seen," he responded.

He described "very significant differences" between the parties.

And those gaps are visible.

In documents published earlier this week, Sinn Fein made proposals for a strengthened Parades Commission.

But yesterday Orange Order grand chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson, who is part of the DUP talks delegation, said: "It's well-known that the wider unionist family want to see an end of the Parades Commission."

Mr Donaldson said a "new process" was needed.

"One that can command confidence," Stormont junior minister Jonathan Bell added.

But Mr Attwood responded: "Everybody knows that there is going to be a regulatory body and the Parades Commission is the best model anyone has come up with."

So, the differences are clear – on parades, flags and the past.

And somehow Haass has to close the gaps.

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