Haass sticks by agreement deadline
The former US diplomat trying to find political agreement on outstanding peace process issues in Northern Ireland has insisted his end-of-year deadline is achievable.
Ex-White House envoy to the region Dr Richard Haass has been tasked with finding resolution to long- standing disputes on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
He has arrived in Belfast for another week of talks with the five parties in Stormont's mandatory powersharing coalition.
Ahead of re-commencing dialogue, Dr Haass said the deadline given to him to obtain resolution was both "do-able and desirable".
"It will be our objective to finalise this before Christmas," he said.
"I think that would be ideal because everyone involved in this process and everyone in Northern Ireland would have even more reason than usual to celebrate the holidays this year.
"If this process gets to where we would like it to get, I really do think it would create a better present and better future for people across the board who live here."
Dr Haass has been on a number of fact-finding missions to the region in the last two months but has said this visit will see a "gear shift", with political negotiations beginning in earnest.
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 500 submissions to an online consultation.
Dr Haass, who was envoy to Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2003 under George W Bush's presidency, was asked by Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to chair the talks process with an end-of-year deadline to report.
He is being supported by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O'Sullivan.
The week ahead will see talks with each political party in turn before Dr Haass, who is the president of US think-tank the Council for Foreign Relations, chairs a plenary session involving all five on Friday.
Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan will also meet more interest groups throughout the week in Belfast, Portadown and Londonderry.
The negotiators will return to Belfast in December for a final two week intensive push to secure a deal.
Dr Haass said the process was now entering a new phase.
"The plan is to explore positions in much greater detail on the three issues central to our missions - the issues of parades, flags and emblems and the past," he explained.
"What we want to do is come away from this week of meetings with a far better and far more detailed understanding of what the parties are prepared to support, where there are overlaps between and among the parties and where there are gaps or differences."
Prior to discussions resuming today, Sinn Fein published position papers in regard to each of the disputed issues.
Their proposals include legislation to prevent unregulated flag flying in public spaces; a legally binding code of conduct for parades, with "effective sanctions"; and the establishment of an independent, international "truth recovery mechanism" to address the legacy of the past.
One of the party's delegates in the talks, North Belfast Assembly member Gerry Kelly said he was optimistic that progress could be made before the Christmas deadline, but only if the political will existed on all sides.
"The Haass process is one which has already seen significant public involvement and it is our hope that the publication of our submissions will encourage further public debate around these issues," he added.
"It is fairly obvious that we are now entering a crucial phase of this process."
At the outset of the talks, Dr Haass had urged politicians to keep specific details about the negotiations confidential.
Asked today about Sinn Fein's decision to publish their papers, he responded: "We are not in a position to insist that papers either are made public or are not. It was our belief that the prospects for the talks would be served by people making the papers available to us in confidence, that said, it is up to the individual protagonists, if you will, if they so choose to make them public. We are going to continue the deliberations with as much confidence as we can."
He said that ultimately the public would have the opportunity to assess the process and the positions taken by the parties, but he preferred that would happen at the talks' conclusion.
Addressing the Assembly today, Mr Robinson said costs relating to the working of the process was being covered by his and Mr McGuinness's office, including expenses incurred by the Haass team and a small payment to their researcher.
The likely cost will be approximately £135,000, with £73,000 to date. Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan are working for free.
In regard to dealing with past, the first minister noted some consensus had emerged about the need for victims to tell their stories without cross-examination or interrogation, but he said different attitudes still remained.
"I am not sure how on the one side it is possible for people to look at an event in the past as something that re-traumatises them and somebody else at the same time to think that this is something worthy of celebration or commemoration," he told MLAs.
He added: "If there is going to be a positive outcome it will be because the Executive parties who are on that panel reach a conclusion and that depends very largely on whether they are going to retreat into old ways because there is an election or two coming up next year or whether they are prepared to look at what is in the best long-term interest of the people of Northern Ireland.
"I hope it is the latter, my party is certainly up for attempting to resolve the differences on this matters.
"Undoubtedly it will be more likely to get agreement on issues relating to parades than it is to flags and the more easy to get it on flags than the past."
Mr Robinson said the onus was on the parties, not the facilitators, to reach agreement.
Dr Haass said while Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness or the British and Irish governments would not be directly involved in the round-table talks, their buy-in would be crucial to the outcome of any potential agreement.
"If this entire political endeavour is to succeed and I don't just mean between now and the end of the year, but more fundamentally, we are going to need all hands on deck, we are going to need everyone - the British government, the Irish government, the political leadership here in Northern Ireland - each to play his or her responsible role," he said.
The initiative has been billed as the most important talks process 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.
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, the most recent in Strabane, Co Tyrone at the weekend.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) assistant chief constable Will Kerr today urged politicians to strive for consensus.
"It's been a busy 2013 for policing and we are spending a disproportionate amount of police time and effort and resources and money dealing with the three issues that we need the Haass process to fix.
"Parades, the past and flags take up an awful amount of police time. We don't want 2014 to be the same as 2013 in terms of the scenes that we have seen in the streets of many towns and cities across Northern Ireland.
"So our plea to politicians, who I know are working hard on this issues at the minute, is to provide a framework for those three issues to be resolved through the Haass talks so that policing can get back to dealing with core policing issues."