Haass process on verge of collapse
Peter Robinson suggests a working group to break the deadlock
The deadlock on the Haass proposals deepened last night as it appeared that any hope of cutting a deal was dead in the water.
While the unionist parties have proposed reopening negotiations, Sinn Fein instead wants the final draft of the Haass plan to be implemented as it stands.
The talks chaired by Dr Richard Haass ended on New Year’s Eve.
First Minister Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, has proposed an “an all-party working group to resolve outstanding areas of disagreement and implement agreements where identified”.
This idea was a rerun of his initial reaction shortly after the negotiations ended. At the time it was rejected by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who said he would only support a group set up to implement the Haass proposals.
Sinn Fein’s ruling ard chomhairle is meeting in Dublin on Saturday to consider its position.
Meanwhile, Mr Robinson’s approach has been unanimously backed by his party officers. The DUP executive has yet to discuss the issue, but Mr Robinson’s position now appears unassailable internally and is unlikely to shift.
DUP sources say that feedback from supporters phoning its 46 offices across the country had overwhelmingly backed Mr Robinson for not closing a deal and continuing to press for improvements.
Mr Robinson said that the DUP was “not a party that throws in the towel” and would continue to work to resolve the outstanding issues.
On Monday the UUP’s executive strongly rejected the Haass document as “not viable and therefore unacceptable”, and described the outcome of talks as a “mess”.
But yesterday UUP boss Mike Nesbitt supported Mr Robinson’s idea.
“If Peter Robinson is saying ‘let’s get a working group to see how we can move this thing on’, that is something we could get involved in,” Mr Nesbitt told the Belfast Telegraph, adding: “If it is going to be Martin McGuinness’s approach of a working group to implement every letter of Haass, we would say we cannot take part and give our reasons.”
But the SDLP’s Alex Attwood said that, at least, the section of the Haass talks on dealing with the past should be implemented.
“The SDLP again calls for a five-party working group to be established — not another talking shop, but an implementation and legislation group,” he said.
Alliance, which rejected the document as an overall package, also recommended proceeding with the section on dealing with the past.
“We believe that implementing these proposals would move us on considerably from where we are now and would improve the situation of many of those bereaved and injured in the Troubles as well as create opportunities for wider reconciliation and healing in our society,” said Naomi Long MP, the party’s lead negotiator.
Raymond White, a former head of RUC Special Branch who represents the Association of Retired Police Officers’ Association, said he was personally quite satisfied with the section on the past.
He denied claims he had advised unionists not to agree to it. The association had made a submission to Dr Haass but, Mr White said, its concerns had been met.
Both unionist parties have reservations about the section on the past, but the biggest sticking points for unionists appear to be parading and flags. When we supplied Alliance, the UUP and DUP with questions on their specific difficulties with the Haass package, the DUP did not reply.
The UUP said it had “several reservations about the text, including its selective use of language, the inability to make clear difference between innocent victims and perpetrator.
“It is unacceptable that there remains an almost exclusive focus on the State and the security forces in dealing with the past.”
Talks between the five Executive parties on parading, the past, and the public use of flags and emblems broke up on New Year’s Eve without agreement. But Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, the two former US diplomats who chaired talks, set out the way forward as they saw it. It was accepted by SDLP and Sinn Fein, but rejected by Alliance, the DUP and UUP.
DUP leader’s approach is the least worst option
Analysis by Liam Clarke
Peter Robinson needs to take the bad look off the failure of the Haass talks to reach agreement on any of three items they were set up to resolve. The First Minister wants a soft landing — but the big question is whether this enterprise can ever fly again now that the momentum that kept it aloft has melted into recrimination.
People must wonder whether these proposals are being ceremonially dumped in a sea of flim-flam and fine words.
The situation is far from ideal but, given where we are, Mr Robinson’s approach appears the least worst option and, if he shows his sincerity, other parties may yet give it a chance despite their initial frustration.
Dr Haass himself thought so when he tweeted last Thursday that he welcomed Peter Robinson's support for a working group of the Executive’s five parties in order to narrow differences, and act where there is consensus.
It is a pity that the DUP and the other parties had not done this work during the Haass process, but walking away is a worse option than trying again.
Mr Robinson told his DUP party officers: “I agree with Dr Haass that the issues are of such importance that they need to be tackled now rather than later.”
If he is serious about that, he needs to reach out to Mr McGuinness — who is frustrated after swallowing hard to accept parts of the agreement — preferably before this weekend’s Sinn Fein ard chomhairle.
The European and local government elections in May are not a valid excuse for failing to make progress. The two parties steered through policing reforms in February 2010 even though they faced a Westminster election that May.
Mr Robinson’s promises to resolve remaining difficulties must now be tested against his actions.
Belfast Telegraph Digital