Haass: Real chance of progress
The former US diplomat striving to forge political agreement on outstanding peace process issues in Northern Ireland has insisted there is a real chance of achieving meaningful progress.
Ex-White House envoy to the region Dr Richard Haass said consultations this week with Stormont's main parties and the British and Irish governments had made him optimistic that the talks initiative could deliver a positive outcome.
Dr Haass has been tasked with finding resolution to long-standing disputes on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
He has been on a number of fact-finding missions to the region but has signalled an intent to begin negotiations in earnest when he returns to Belfast in two weeks.
Assessing the state of play at the conclusion of his latest trip, Dr Haass said:
"I continue to believe there is good chance, a real chance of achieving meaningful progress."
As well as consulting with politicians, Dr Haass and his team have met with between 50 and 60 interest groups in Northern Ireland and have received around 400 submissions to an online consultation.
"I think everyone understands the opportunity and the importance of realising progress," he said.
He said the process would now focus in on face-to-face talks involving the five parties that make up Stormont's mandatory power-sharing coalition.
"We will increasingly be trying to uncover and expand areas of agreement in the three areas that we are looking at," he explained.
"So essentially, if you will, the talks will enter a new phase starting in two weeks when we return, and it will, if you will, become much more a negotiating phase rather than simply a consultative phase."
Dr Haass, who was envoy to Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2003 under George W Bush's presidency, has an end-of-the-year deadline to try to achieve some form of consensus.
As well as meeting the five main Stormont parties, during his latest trip the ex-diplomat flew to London for talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and yesterday travelled to Dublin to meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
Dr Haass, who is the current president of US think-tank the Council for Foreign Relations, has already briefed Prime Minister David Cameron on a previous visit to London.
Today he admitted he had been on "steep learning curve" since fully re-engaging with Northern Ireland politics a decade on from his time as envoy.
But he said his previous experience in the region provided motivation in his current role.
"I feel invested here, I genuinely care about it, I have made friends here," he said.
Providing an update on the process to date, Dr Haass also:
:: Stressed it was too early to give an opinion on whether any final set of proposals would need to be validated by the public, potentially in the form of a referendum;
:: Responded to criticism from Jim Allister, leader of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party (which is not a member of the Executive), who had questioned his decision to consult with the Dublin administration. Dr Haass insisted he had no political agenda and said it would have been "foolish" for him not to canvas thoughts from both the British and Irish Governments;
:: Said he was employing lessons from working in other conflict resolution processes around the world but stressed that Northern Ireland had its own unique set of circumstances;
:: Indicated his support for some future vehicle through which people who suffered in the Troubles could record or document their experiences.
While Dr Haass is being supported in his work by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, she did not accompany him on this trip across the Atlantic.
The talks are being billed as the most important since the 2010 Hillsborough Castle negotiations when responsibilities for policing and justice were devolved to Stormont from Westminster.
They follow one of the most difficult years in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
Loyalist resentment over flags and parading issues sparked mass protests, some of which boiled over into violence on the streets, while republicans have been heavily criticised by victims' campaigners for holding a number of IRA commemorations.
Tensions could potentially ramp up again in the coming weeks as loyalists angry at last December's decision by Belfast City Council to limit the number of days the Union flag flies on City Hall are proposing fresh demonstrations to mark the first anniversary of the contentious vote.
With the Haass talks set to enter crucial phases around the time of proposed loyalist pickets, Dr Haass was asked if he feared they could destabilise his efforts.
Insisting he could not call a "time-out" on what happened in the outside world during the negotiations, he went on to claim that any potential unrest could actually serve to focus minds more sharply.
"In a funny sort of way if things go well in the background, if things go well on the streets, that creates a good atmosphere I believe for this effort," he said.
"If things don't go well that creates a sense of urgency. So I am going to look at it that no matter what happens, in a sense, this process will not suffer and potentially prosper."
The talks come at a time when relations within the Executive are also under strain, particularly between the two largest parties - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - exemplified by a DUP decision in the late summer to withdraw its support for a controversial peace centre on the site of the former paramilitary prison at the Maze in Co Antrim.
Meanwhile, the threat from dissident republican terror groups opposed to the peace process remains severe, with repeated attempts to target members of the police.
Over the last week, four viable letter bomb devices addressed and posted to Ms Villiers, two senior police chiefs and a Public Prosecution Service office were intercepted before they exploded.