Political talks on 'toxic' flags and parades start again at Stormont - as Sinn Fein meets David Cameron at Downing Street
Three-day negotiations focus on outstanding peace process issues
Political talks aimed at resolving outstanding disputes over flags, parades and the past in Northern Ireland have got under way in Belfast.
A three-day session of intensive negotiations focused on the outstanding peace process issues started at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Another three day round of talks is scheduled for next week.
Delegations from the five parties in the power-sharing executive are trying to achieve some degree of progress and reduce community tensions before the biggest day of the loyal order marching season on July 12.
But with parties having seemingly entrenched positions on many of the issues, the prospects of a substantive deal before then appear slim.
Arriving for the talks, Sinn Fein's lead negotiator Gerry Kelly acknowledged there was public scepticism about what the negotiations would achieve.
"From our point of view we are setting the scepticism aside," he said.
The renewed talks bid comes at Stormont six months after marathon negotiations chaired by former US diplomat Richard Haass ended without agreement.
While draft proposals outlined by Dr Haass remain on the table, with the party leaders having met periodically to discuss the outstanding issues since January, efforts to strike a deal in his absence have made little progress.
In recent years serious rioting has broken out in north Belfast in mid July linked to a contentious Orange Order parade on a short stretch of road next to a nationalist neighbourhood.
An imminent determination on whether that parade will be allowed to proceed this year hangs like a shadow over the new talks initiative at Stormont and has the potential to destabilise the process.
The talks involving the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance Party are being facilitated by a senior civil servant.
Mr Kelly said his party was committed to working throughout the summer if that's how long it took to get a deal.
"These three toxic issues need sorted out and we have a chance of doing that," he said.
"The pressure's on and the pressure should be on."
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said it was time to "get things sorted out".
He also called on the UK and Irish government to become directly involved in the process.
"We have been working around this for long enough," he said.
"We have had four months of Haass, we have had six months of leaders' talks, we know what the issues are and we now need a solution.
"The SDLP are there to ensure we do what is necessary in the next two or three weeks to solve and bring the thing to a conclusion."
Alliance party leader David Ford said he was not sure an agreement could be struck this week but expressed hope consensus could be found after all six days of talks.
"We need to have an agreement on the past for the sake of the victims and because it is costing huge sums to the justice system, we need to deal with the contentious issue of flags, which are all across Belfast annoying people, and we also need to deal with the resolution of parades," he said.
"Those, if people are willing, can be resolved in six days of intensive talks and it is now up to others not to demand that they get their own way on everything, but that they agree an honourable compromise."
Unlike the other three parties, the DUP and UUP delegations did not make public statements in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings prior to entering the talks.
While negotiations are happening in Belfast, in London Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will meet Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street.
Afterwards Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams will have a separate meeting with Mr Cameron - an encounter that comes after criticism from the republican party that the Prime Minister has not met with them bilaterally since coming to office, yet has held individual talks with Mr Robinson's DUP on a number of occasions.
As the politicians convened at Stormont, student representatives stressed the importance of agreement.
NUS-USI, the representative body for more than 200,000 higher and further education students in Northern Ireland, said progress was vital.
NUS-USI president Rebecca Hall said: "Young people want our politicians to deliver solutions urgently on flags parades and addressing the past to help create the shared future Northern Ireland needs. Progress is vital to help dismantle the barriers that still exist in our society and to create the jobs and prosperity we need to help Northern Ireland reach its potential. Politicians must demonstrate courage and leadership, and they simply must not let people down.
"It is incumbent upon our politicians build consensus now during these talks. There is a very significant window of opportunity at present to deliver sustainable solutions swiftly on addressing the past, flags and parades.
"So many of Northern Ireland's young people feel that they have to leave to find work elsewhere. It is vital that politicians deliver a deal now to give young people hope for the future. Politicians must act now so that this does not become a lost generation.
"Northern Ireland has had so many negative headlines in recent months around shared future matters. It is vital that there is peace, respect and stability here over the summer and moving forward. Progress in these latest talks is absolutely vital to overcome outstanding issues on building a shared future. Failure to find agreement must not be an option."
'Talking round issues'
At the lunchtime break in talks, Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott accused other parties of refusing to confront specific issues, such as the disputed north Belfast parade.
"We are talking round things as opposed to talking about specific issues," he said of the opening session of negotiations.
"To me, we need to deal with the hard issues. There are a lot of difficult issues out there at the moment and we need to talk specifically about them.
"We're talking about controversial parades and protests and others don't want to talk about them and take them on. But that's their choice."
Belfast Telegraph Digital