Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Richard Haass still pushing for a last-minute deal on flags on return to Belfast

A loyalist flag protest outside Belfast City Hall

Richard Haass is still trying for a last minute deal on flags as his talks with the Executive parties enter a final and critical phase, it can be revealed.

With time running out, the US team is back in Belfast today for one last push to get agreements before an end-of-year deadline.

And before their return, Dr Haass and talks vice chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan have again posed questions on flags – one of three issues under discussion along with parades and the past.

They have asked the parties would they be willing to accept an agreement that included the updating of designated flag days.

This would use the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport list and would identify the buildings where the Union flag would be displayed.

They also ask about "taking certain steps to limit flags flown unofficially in public spaces".

When the US team left Belfast after long hours of negotiation running into Christmas Eve, the flags debate had been parked and was to become one of the issues to be considered by a proposed Commission on Identity, Culture and Traditions.

Now, there is another last-minute attempt to get at least some measure of agreement on the question proving most difficult to answer in these negotiations.

The latest Haass/O'Sullivan proposal ignores the republican demand for equality or neutrality.

Sinn Fein wants two flags on display – the tricolour and Union flag – or no flag.

Nor does the latest proposal raise the hope of the Union flag returning to Belfast City Hall 365 days a year, and any agreement on this issue may prove too much for these talks.

The Haass/O'Sullivan question on flags is one of four they put to the parties – before finalising a draft five document outlining the latest proposals from the US team across the three issues under discussion.

They also asked:

* What "themes and patterns" should be included in any examination of the conflict years?

* What topics should be part of the work of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Traditions?

* What should be the broad principles for a code of conduct on parades, protests and select commemorations?

In a preamble to the questions, all five Executive parties were asked for their main priorities on language to be used in the paper.

Haass and O'Sullivan know they can't make this deal – that it is down to the parties, and writing exclusively in this newspaper yesterday they urged compromise.

"What matters is whether Northern Ireland would be better off with this agreement," they wrote. "We believe the answer to that question is yes – a resounding yes."

DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said there were still "significant issues to resolve across all three areas".

"But, at this stage, I think it is possible to see the outline of a potential agreement on both parades and dealing with the past," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

And Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams also thinks agreement is possible: "As the New Year approaches there is a duty and responsibility on all the parties to these negotiations, despite the challenges, to find a way forward."

But Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott described "huge challenges ahead".

"While he [Haass] has posed some questions, those questions do not deal with all the issues of difficulty – not only from the Ulster Unionist Party but from others," he said.

Alliance MP and negotiator Naomi Long told this newspaper: "What's required is for the parties to make a conscious decision whether they are going to find agreement on these issues, or whether for party political reasons they are going to choose to squander the opportunity."

As the Haass/O'Sullivan team enters the final phase of the talks they will know that getting the package on the past over the line will represent the key success of this negotiation.

They are absolutely adamant about the end-of-year deadline and, so, have just a few days left to persuade the parties that this is a deal worth doing.

Past can't be used as battlefield by parties

Read carefully the Haass/O'Sullivan article written for this newspaper yesterday and you will find the area where they believe most progress has been made in this negotiation.

Remarkably it is on the past.

"We attribute this, in large part, to the critical role victims have played in encouraging us all to think creatively, not just about their own needs, but also about the needs of society," Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan wrote.

The focus of the SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood has been on getting this issue right.

"It is not there yet," he told me. "There's still a small number of big issues, but courage and thinking about the needs of victims – not the perpetrators – can see agreement being reached," he said.

The Haass/O'Sullivan package in this area is detailed.

* An Historical Investigations Unit;

* An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval using limited immunity;

* An Advisory Group of experts on the Northern Ireland conflict to review and assess emerging information for any patterns and themes gleaned;

* And an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, including victims' representatives.

Haass and O'Sullivan know there will not be an agreed narrative on the conflict years – that there is no such thing as one description of what happened. There are many different stories.

But when it comes to addressing the past, the unionist concern has always been about how much of it has been about putting "the state in the dock".

"On entering this process we made clear that we would not countenance an unbalanced rewriting of the narrative of the Troubles," said DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson.

But any process on the past cannot be shaped by unionist demands and concerns only.

An excavation of the conflict period will dig up ugly truths.

It is not just about the violence of republicans and loyalists.

Collusion happened and it cannot be dismissed or ignored.

And the past cannot be used as another battlefield for those on the different sides who still think they can win.

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