Belfast Telegraph

£135k talks bill... but Richard Haass and aide working free of charge

BY NOEL McADAM

The cost of the talks chaired by diplomat Richard Haass amount to approximately £135,000, the Assembly has been told.

And First Minister Peter Robinson revealed that of the total, which is being covered by his and Martin McGuinness's office, a total of £73,000 has been spent so far.

The former envoy Dr Haass and his assistant Meghan O'Sullivan are giving their services free – and not taking a fee for a Press officer and an official.

The projected £135,000 covers expenses including travel and subsistence, and what Mr Robinson called "a small remuneration" being paid to a researcher.

"It is important to record once again our appreciation of the fact that Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan have offered their services on a pro bono basis. Therefore, they are not taking a fee for their time or the time incurred by their Press officer and an additional researcher," the DUP leader told MLAs.

Urging the parties involved in the talks to "roll up their sleeves", he said the onus is on them to produce a solution rather than Dr Haass.

"If there is going to be a positive outcome, it will be because the Executive parties... reach a conclusion. That depends very largely on whether those parties are going to retreat into old ways because there is an election or two next year, or whether they are prepared to look at what is in the best long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

"I hope that it is the latter. My party is certainly up for attempting to resolve the differences on these matters."

But the most difficult problem which the Haass process has to tackle remains dealing with the past, which the DUP leader said he has difficulty in defining.

"Undoubtedly, it will be more likely that we reach agreement on issues relating to parades than on flags, and it will be easier to get agreement on flags than on the past," he said.

"I have always had difficulty trying to define what people mean by dealing with the past. If dealing with the past requires us to have a shared narrative of history, I think it is impossible for that to happen. If it is about how we deal with those who are the victims of the past, I think that it is possible to get agreement."

Mr Robinson added that funding is being "made available for anything that might arise out of the Haass talks", sparking speculation he was referring to a new body to replace the Parades Commission.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "I pointed out to the First Minister the budget line for a body called the 'Public Assemblies, Parades and Protest Body' and asked what this was about.

"Peter Robinson made clear that this was part of his preparation for the outcome of the Haass talks. This is the name of the body that was proposed by the DUP and Sinn Fein when they took it upon themselves to sort out parading after the 2010 Hillsborough negotiations saw the devolution of policing and justice powers to the NI Assembly.

"These proposals were flawed, and rejected by many, including the Orange Order, who entered the current Haass talks explicitly warning the solution to parades was not a return to the 2010 proposals."

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