Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass talks countdown: It's decision time on shared future we were promised

DUP Leader and First Minister Peter Robinson (right) with Nigel Dodds (left) and Johnathan Bell emerge from Stormont to speak to the media, as Robinson has said he would be outraged if proposals for dealing with unresolved issues from the Northern Ireland peace process were not revised.
DUP Leader and First Minister Peter Robinson (right) with Nigel Dodds (left) and Johnathan Bell emerge from Stormont to speak to the media, as Robinson has said he would be outraged if proposals for dealing with unresolved issues from the Northern Ireland peace process were not revised.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness know that the blame will settle on them – and not Richard Haass or even the smaller parties – if progress on the knotty problems of parading, the past and flags cannot be made in the next few days.

It was the Stormont leaders of the two big parties, the First and Deputy First Minister, who invited Mr Haass to chair these vital discussions.

They said at the time that he was their first choice, they showered him with praise and they accepted his tight deadline of Christmas, or the New Year at the latest, when many parties and commentators questioned whether this was actually viable.

If the talks collapse voters will rightly question whether Sinn Fein and the DUP are capable of leading the peace process to the next stage. Behind all the rhetoric, there are signs that they realise this.

Mr Robinson said yesterday that steam would be coming out of his ears if the draft document his party was shown yesterday was the final version; but of course it isn't. Last week the DUP announced that it was "spitting blood", so there has clearly been some progress in the meantime.

Indeed Jeffrey Donaldson, the party's lead negotiator, confirmed that things had improved since Thursday morning's blood spitting crisis.

"There are very substantial changes to the document that we saw last week – we welcome that. I think many of those changes reflect the concerns that we had," Mr Donaldson said.

"Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage. We are just saying that there is not a set of proposals that we can support, agree to or recommend," Mr Robinson added.

There is no hint of walking away. The proposals Dr Haass has advanced may need further work but, from what has been leaked, they hold a mirror up to our society. He hasn't plucked them out of the sky, they are the sort of compromises that any objective observer would suggest. Questions like dealing with the past and regulating parading will not become easier if they are given more time – quite the opposite. They will fester. As memories fade and the Troubles generation passes into history, more and more victims will be left with neither justice nor truth.

It is disappointing but not unexpected that the display of flags on civic buildings is the most intractable problem, and in this area we need to see rapid progress.

It would be both depressing and destabilising if each of the 11 new councils which are due to be elected next year opened its term with a sectarian dogfight over flag-flying. However difficult it may be, some generally applicable principles need to be agreed. What happens over the next short time will tell us whether the DUP and Sinn Fein-led coalition can live up to its pledge of delivering a shared society.

Whatever happens, Mr Haass should publish his proposals at the end of this week.

That would bring increased pressure to close any remaining gaps.

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