Tense political talks stretched into the early hours of today as a new Christmas Eve Agreement for Northern Ireland hung in the balance.
Stormont's five main parties remained locked behind closed doors well after midnight in an attempt to hammer out a deal on how contentious parades should be handled along with the legacy of the Troubles.
The DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance were battling to conclude a new concord which would allow talks chief Dr Richard Haass and his vice-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan to fly home to America for Christmas today.
And while optimism that a deal was within reach appeared to be increasing, a final agreed overall document continued to elude the parties.
Some sources were also not ruling out the prospect of the two senior diplomats agreeing to come back on or around December 27 – since the deadline set by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who appointed Dr Haass as a facilitator, is the end of the year.
Senior figures including Dr Haass remained confident however that an agreement would be worked out in time for Christmas. In a tweet, Dr Haass (below) said it was "difficult to imagine a better Christmas present for one and all".
An all-party plenary session was pushed back twice yesterday – initially from 11am to 6pm, finally getting under way at 8.30pm – after the Haass team worked on a fourth draft of their proposals.
And it was confirmed their report – thought to have grown from around 30 pages to some 40 pages – will effectively sideline the most protracted problem of the three the Haass team was tasked with, flags and emblems.
The final paper calls for a new commission on the issue to be set up in the new year – despite the new marching season getting under way at Easter.
The fourth draft was prepared by Dr Haass and Harvard professor Dr O'Sullivan yesterday after what one source described as a "substantial" amount of updated submissions and text suggestions from the parties.
If agreement comes, it is expected it will be sent in the first instance to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, but Dr Haass said he anticipated they will make it public quickly.
And as with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, all the parties might not announce their immediate full backing for the completed document – but await internal consultations first.
One source last night said there would have to be a full meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, which could take up to a week.
But DUP leader Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness set a deadline of the end of the year for publication of the document – not for agreement.
As the five parties prepared for their round-table session, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt indicated there remained substantial issues in the section on dealing with the past but said "we are nearly there" on parades.
DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said that while some progress had been made it was "realistically... going to be a challenge to get agreement before close of play".
But the Lagan Valley MP added: "I would hope that, even today, it might still be possible to reach agreement, at least on parades and dealing with the past, and agreement on how we move forward on the other issues."
Mr McGuinness last night tweeted that he would love to go home for Christmas. However, he added that he was "determined to do so with agreement".
We rate the parties' performance so far in their efforts to find common ground
Few if any commentators predicted that flags would prove to be the main sticking point in the Haass talks as they have proved to be, particularly given that the template of flying the Union flag on designated days was agreed at Stormont almost a decade ago.
But heat seemed to have replaced light. Unionists insist the issue became poisoned by Belfast City Council’s decision to stop flying the national flag all-year round in favour of designated days.
They had hoped to negotiate an agreed programme of designated days for the 11 new councils, due to come into existence from next May, along with a special ‘opt out’ for Belfast as the ‘capital’ city. Since the number of designated days in Britain already exceeds Northern Ireland, this also left the door open for unionists to claim they had gained some ground.
In the end, however, a formula allowing the new councils some flexibility, which could have resulted in nationalist-controlled authorities not flying the Union flag at all, proved all but impossible.
An early draft from Dr Haass floated the idea that the Irish tricolour could be flown at Stormont when the Taoiseach or Irish President are on State or official visits.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt suggested that might work if Northern Ireland was a normal society.
Now the final draft document talks about pushing the issue down the pipe to a new commission on culture, traditions and identity.
THE PAST, 6/10:
Dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and the needs of the thousands of victims was the most intractable of the trio of tasks facing the Haass process at the outset. And with flags shelved for a separate process in the new year, it was also the issue which was dominating last night’s late plenary session of the five parties.
Broadly, the twin tracks of truth and justice are represented in the final document and much of the spirit of the five-year-old Eames-Bradley report has been revisited. It talked of a Legacy Commission and under the new proposals a group of eight to 10 “widely respected experts” would be convened in another three to five years to compile “patterns and themes” from the information which has been provided.
An Historical Investigations Unit is to subsume the work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman but not, as earlier speculated, the Coroner’s Courts system.
And a separate body called the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) could allow the use of what has been called “targeted use immunity”, falling short of an amnesty but specifying statements made could not be used in court proceedings.
The DUP has argued there would be a “firewall” between the two bodies but also insisted that victims who opt into the latter ‘truth’ route would not have to give up on the hope for justice. Legislation on all of this would have to get through Stormont and, while the DUP and Sinn Fein have sufficient numbers on a straight majority, it could be stymied by a demand for a cross-community vote.
Since Stormont’s controlling parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, hammered out a deal on paradng in the aftermath of the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont, it was widely believed a mechanism on marching could be achieved.
The danger was it would look to most people like a simple revamp of the already-existing body, as cynics put it: “I can’t believe it’s not the Parades Commission.”
The Grand Orange Lodge threw out the SF/ DUP deal of 2010 but had a more direct input this time, with Belfast chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson, a key member of the DUP talks team. Nonetheless, there was still a suggestion from unionist sources that insufficient time was spent on the issue early on.
The difficulties here seemed to have centred on whether it should be a two or three-tier process.
The first tier was at one stage called the Public Events Facilities Office and latterly the Political and Cultural Expression Facilitation Office which would deal with applications for parades — the vast majority of which are not controversial.
The second tier referred to as The Authority for Public Events Adjudication in a more recent draft would consist of a seven-strong panel which would rule on contested marches — but come under the auspices of the Department of Justice rather than the Northern Ireland Office.
The system would also include a third level of appeal to the courts. The question remains what difference it will make to the situation on the ground in flashpoint areas.