Parties make late bid for deal
Northern Ireland politicians have entered late night talks in Belfast in a final bid to strike a pre-Christmas deal on unresolved peace process issues.
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is chairing the negotiations with representatives from the five parties in Stormont's power-sharing coalition as they seek to find long elusive consensus on how to deal with disputes over flags, controversial parades, and dealing with the region's troubled past.
Dr Haass, a one-time White House special envoy to Northern Ireland, has an end-of-year deadline to forge an agreement but has signalled a desire to bring things to a conclusion before flying back to the United States tomorrow for Christmas.
A crunch plenary meeting had been due to commence at 11am at the city's Stormont Hotel, but it did not get under way until just before 9pm, with the politicians having spent most of the day assessing what is now Dr Haass's fourth draft of a proposed document.
Arriving at the venue with talks' co-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, a US foreign affairs expert, Dr Haass was guarded on the potential of a successful outcome tonight.
"We look forward to the chance to meet with all the parties and we continue to have the goal we have always had - to press ahead with an agreement," he said.
"We'll see how we do - it's going to be an interesting evening."
Negotiators from the two largest parties - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - declined to make substantive comment as they entered the crucial meeting.
If no agreement is reached, Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan have said they will make a judgment call on whether it would be worth flying back to Northern Ireland on December 27 for another round of talks.
While some progress has been made on long-standing disputes on parades and how to deal with the legacy of the past, a deal on flags seems destined to prove out of reach.
It is understood the latest draft recommends establishing another forum to examine issues around flags and identity over a longer time frame.
But the current process could yet see agreement on a replacement for the Parades Commission to rule on contentious marches by unionists and nationalists, and on an organisation to oversee dealing with the legacy of past - potentially one offering limited immunity from prosecution to those who co-operate.
Dr Haass was commissioned by DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to oversee the talks initiative . He will report to them at the end of the process.