Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Gilmore confident about Haass talks

Eamon Gilmore, at the Skainos Centre, Newtownards Road, Belfast

Resolution to major political problems facing Northern Ireland can only be achieved with increased engagement with grass roots opinion, the Irish Tanaiste insisted after meeting with community figures, including loyalist paramilitary representatives, in Belfast.

Eamon Gilmore said there was no doubt cross-community relations had been negatively impacted by a series of controversies and disputes over flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles in the last nine months.

The Republic's deputy prime minister said he remained confident that an upcoming cross party talks initiative chaired by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass could find a way forward.

But he stressed the input of people at street level was vital to its success.

"Certainly there have been difficulties and there have been tensions over the course of the last year," he said.

"I think it's important that we find a resolution to those. I think the resolution to those rests largely in dialogue and increased dialogue at a community and grass roots level."

Mr Gilmore met community, civic and church leaders from both sides of the traditional divide in a packed schedule of engagements across the city. And in one behind-closed-doors meeting in east Belfast he held talks with representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups.

Asked about the encounter afterwards, he said: "I think it's important that we have engagement with all sections of the community in Northern Ireland and the Irish government values very much having that engagement, having an engagement and dialogue with people from all quarters, from every section of society, from every background.

"We obviously have an on-going discussion at a political level with political leaders but I think it's also important that we have a discussion with community leaders and particularly with people who are in a position to offer leadership at a community level and who have responsibility within their own community to encourage calm and to encourage restraint."

The last nine months have seen already strained community relations in Northern Ireland further deteriorate, both at Stormont and at numerous interface areas in the region.

Tensions were raised in December when loyalists embarked on widespread protests against a decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag at City Hall, with some descending into serious rioting.

There were further outbreaks of loyalist disorder over the summer months in relation to parading disputes in the city, while Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir was attacked on a visit to a unionist area in north Belfast. Loyalists have accused Sinn Fein of waging a cultural war against their traditions.

Earlier this month, republicans were heavily criticised by victims campaigners and unionist politicians for holding an IRA commemoration parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone - a town that suffered significantly at the hands of paramilitaries during the Troubles.

In another indication of fraying relations at the heart of the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein-led coalition at Stormont, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson subsequently withdrew support for a peace centre at the former Maze prison site near Lisburn.

All the events have been played out against the backdrop of the on-going campaign by dissident republicans to destabilise the peace process with violence.

The Haass talks initiative will attempt to find resolution to three major issues yet to be settled in the peace process: flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the past.

Mr Gilmore expressed hope that the decision to shelve the multimillion-pound EU-backed Maze project could be "revisited".

With regard to the wider issues facing the cross-party talks forum, the Tanaiste said he would be urging Dr Haass to ensure grassroots opinion was canvassed.

"There should be an engagement with people on the ground, people at grassroots level," he said.

"I think that we need to hear (it), certainly I found it very valuable today to listen to community representatives about the experiences that they are having at a street level - the kind of night-in-night-out type of tensions that they have had to deal with and that they have had to manage and work with the police and work with the colleagues in other communities and I would be talking to Richard Haass about that."

Mr Gilmore travelled into the heart of one of the most volatile areas in the city - at the Lower Newtownards Road/ Short Strand interface in the east - to meet community representatives on both sides of the divide.

After a tour of the republican Short Strand enclave, where the Irish Government has helped with the provision of security cameras, the Tanaiste was invited to the Skainos centre in the nearby loyalist neighbourhood.

Mr Gilmore also talked with residents and political representatives in the Ardoyne area in the north of the city - the seat of one of most long-standing parading disputes.

Earlier he had a meeting with Lord Mayor Mr O Muilleoir at City Hall.

The Tanaiste began his day by meeting trade and commerce representatives concerned at the impact of the recent violence on business in the city centre.

Michael Deane, a local restaurateur who hosted the briefing, said: "I think the Tanaiste being here was a very powerful voice listening directly to business people and their very acute fears for business, especially in Belfast but all across Northern Ireland.

"The situation is always very delicate. It takes very little to disrupt business in Belfast. The city empties (when there is disorder) and word goes out to people not to go into Belfast and the impact on business is catastrophic.

"Businesses likes restaurants, retail, bars rely on footfall and if the footfall's not there, say no more."

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