Belfast Telegraph

Haass refuses to enter flag row

A former US diplomat brought into Northern Ireland to try to resolve contentious peace process issues has sidestepped questions on a proposed loyalist rally in the run-up to Christmas.

Dr Richard Haass, an ex-White House envoy to the region, said he will not be drawn into controversy on individual matters as flag protesters organising a mass demonstration are being urged to think again.

"I'm not going to get involved with this or that pending political activity. I've got enough on my plate," Dr Haass said.

"There are mechanisms for dealing with these things, for existing things.

"I think there's an understanding that the current situation dealing with all the issues we've talked about with the past, with flags, with parading and marching is in certain ways inadequate or less than optimal."

Dr Haass said his focus was finding a way to improve the way those issues are dealt with and not on decisions on individual activities.

He made his remarks after holding talks in Dublin with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore.

Dr Haass would not comment on the specific loyalist rally, planned for one of the busiest shopping days in the run-up to Christmas on Novermber 30, despite calls from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers for protesters to think again.

The demonstrators are planning for 10,000 people to march, sparking fears of disruption which cost the local economy millions in similar flag disputes last year.

But Dr Haass said: "Just to be clear about my role here, I don't have operational responsibility for what happens in Northern Ireland now.

"I will not have operational responsibility for what will happen. What I have is a responsibility to work with political leadership, about trying to resolve some of the lingering divisive issues."

The diplomat insisted the purpose of the peace talks was to work on a "macro level" rather than a "micro level".

Dr Haass arrived in Belfast earlier this week for his second visit aimed at forging agreement on three of the most long-standing disputes facing the power-sharing administration at Stormont.

He said upon his arrival that he was optimistic that a mood for compromise is emerging and that he sensed people were ready to move on.

Dr Haass added: "There is simply no rationale, no justification whatsoever for resorting to violence or returning.

"I think it's that straight, it's that cut and dry, it's that simple."

The former diplomat also condemned a recent spate of letter bombs, describing it as "simply unacceptable".

"In this case, it's not simply the people to whom the pipe bombs were allegedly addressed," he said.

"What about the people who handle them - the Post Office, the workers? What's the sense of this? What possible legitimacy could stem from something like this?

"An act of violence against some person who is doing his or her job - I simply don't understand that."

Dr Haass also quoted his former colleague and former US secretary of state Colin Powell, saying "capital is power".

He said Northern Ireland has to compete with "every other square inch on the planet" to attract investment and that violence scares it off, which is harmful for the whole nation.

"There is no legitimacy to it, there is nothing in it for anybody there. It is bad that it happened, it is good that it be widely repudiated," he said.

Meanwhile, Tanaiste Gilmore, who described his talks with Dr Haass as productive, also condemned recent trouble in Northern Ireland.

The foreign affairs minister warned that no-one should put any peace achieved at risk, insisting: "Northern Ireland has a great future."

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