Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Assembly motions collapse leaving Haass deal in limbo

Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan after the final day of talks on New Year's Eve in Belfast
Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan after the final day of talks on New Year's Eve in Belfast

The Assembly parties are in disarray after they failed to agree on a way forward for the Haass proposals after a four-hour debate in which every proposal was voted down.

The first Stormont session following the Christmas break exposed major party divisions after their failure to agree to adopt the plan from former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass on flags, parading and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

But there were also signs that the parties may yet be able to move forward on some aspects of the blueprint, including the new structures on parades.

At question time before the debate, First Minister Peter Robinson told MLAs there were more than 340 separate "elements" of agreement in the final text produced by Dr Haass and Prof Meghan O'Sullivan.

But he added that the level of agreement on each of the elements would have to be assessed, and the areas where agreement still has to be reached identified.

Today sees the first meeting of the party leaders since the Haass negotiations broke down in the early hours of New Years Eve, and is likely to result in a new working group which could be chaired by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

Mr Robinson told MLAs that Mrs Villiers had offered to do so and he would be "quite content" with that, and he ruled out asking Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan to return to Northern Ireland.

"There are rules against inhumane treatment," he quipped.

In its later motion – narrowly beaten by 52 votes to 49 – Sinn Fein called on the parties to implement the final Haass proposals.

But the UUP, DUP and Alliance all failed to amend it. The heaviest defeat – by 89 votes to 12 – was for an Ulster Unionist call for Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to agree a "practical and positive way forward" on the Haass plan.

Opening the debate, Gerry Kelly said republicans were prepared to accept the plan despite its flaws.

"All five parties of the Executive agreed to bring in Haass and O'Sullivan because frankly we could not agree. We have had the negotiation and more time will not bring us closer," he said.

Mr Robinson said the Sinn Fein motion was divisive. He said his party's amendment recognised issues still had to be resolved.

"It has always been my position that no deal is better than a bad deal. The broad structures in Haass could take us forward but we still have to get the detail right. A deal that simply brings Sinn Fein and the SDLP along is not going to work," he said. "You can hide behind Haass as much as you like but in six months, a year, we are going to have to come back to these issues."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said the progress made could be consolidated but more work is necessary, including on the code of conduct for parades.

"Now is the time to grasp the nettle but any attempts at renegotiation will not work," he added.

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott said there had been some progress on dealing with the past.

"A large part of our community when they talk about truth do not believe they will get the truth – or even partial truth, leaving them more frustrated," he added.

Alliance negotiator Chris Lyttle said the Haass proposals were a basis for making progress but fell short of the comprehensive agreement which the public expected and the parties had been mandated to produce.

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