Ex-US envoy looks for NI consensus
The former US diplomat jetting into Belfast for crunch talks next week has said he is determined to find consensus on troublesome issues by the end of the year.
But Dr Richard Haass insisted he would not be able to resolve the outstanding problems of the Northern Ireland peace process on his own.
From New York the former US envoy said: "We will listen, we will suggest and as the process unfolds between now and the end of the year we will be making our recommendations.
"The goal is to come up with a consensus document by the end of the year. That is what we are determined to attempt to do. We can work for it, but we cannot by ourselves make it happen. It is up to local leaders in the community; in the society and in the political process to be willing to put forward their ideas; to accept compromise and to try to recommend to their respective constituencies and supporters to accept and support those compromises."
Dr Haass, who was US special envoy to Northern Ireland during George Bush's presidency from 2001-03, will chair all-party talks aimed at tackling three major contentious issues - flags and emblems; parades and dealing with the legacy of the past.
He is expected to meet with representatives from all five Stormont Executive parties, clergy and business leaders during a week-long series of engagements starting next Tuesday. However, he has also pledged to hear from individuals and groups such as the loyalists who have set up a protest camp at a north Belfast interface over a parades dispute.
Dr Haass declined to reveal if contact would be made with dissident republican elements who are opposed to the peace process and have been responsible for a number of gun and bomb attacks recently.
He said he would be sticking to the December deadline but would not disclose details of what was on or off the agenda including the prospect of an amnesty or the establishment of a truth commission.
He added: "These issues are fairly well known. Between now and the end of the year, I would think there is more than ample time to air the various positions and come with potential compromises. I am prepared to devote considerable time between now and the end of the year to help facilitate the process. So, I am entering this process with the expectation that we will conclude our work before the end of 2013."
Northern Ireland has experienced one of the worst years of street disorder since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Tensions have been high since last December when loyalists embarked on widespread protests, some of which descended into serious rioting over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.
Violence erupted throughout July in relation to parading disputes and last month Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir was attacked on a visit to a unionist area in north Belfast.
Republicans were also heavily criticised by victims campaigners for holding an IRA commemoration parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone - a town which suffered significantly at the hands of paramilitaries during the Troubles.
Dr Haass said he had realistic expectations from his first round of meetings.
He said: "I do not see this first set of meetings in September as a negotiating round or as an attempt to bridge differences. I am hoping that by the end of this trip and certainly by the end of the October trip - these first two rounds of talks - that I, and we, have an incomparably better sense of the issues and the politics behind them. That will then allow us to pivot and to move forward and to essentially narrow the differences and come up with the consensus."
Earlier this week he met with the First and Deputy First Ministers in New York for a two-hour meeting which he described as "extremely useful".