Belfast Telegraph

Richard Haass Talks: Tricolour at Stormont proposal the first major sticking point

By LIAM CLARKE

The Irish tricolour could fly over Stormont alongside the Union flag when selected Irish dignitaries are in Northern Ireland, if suggestions by former US diplomat Richard Haass are adopted.

The idea was among several which were put to Northern Ireland parties in a draft discussion document they were shown yesterday at Belfast's Stormont Hotel.

Dr Haass also shared his ideas with Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, and senior British officials yesterday.

The suggestion has left the DUP outraged, with party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson saying there would be "steam coming out" of his ears if it was adopted.

The document suggests that the Assembly Commission should consider flying the tricolour when the Irish President or the Taoiseach are here on a State or official visit.

During the Queen's visit to Dublin in 2011, the Union flag was flown alongside the tricolour and the European flag opposite government buildings and it was flown at the city's Garden of Remembrance during a wreath-laying ceremony by the Queen in honour of those who fought against Britain in the War of Independence, as well as Irish soldiers who fell on UN missions.

If this gesture was reciprocated then the tricolour would only fly to honour President Higgins, the official Head of State, and would not be hoisted during visits by the Taoiseach.

Other proposals in the draft document include:

* The Union flag should fly at all councils on days designated by the Royal College of Arms but that councils should be allowed to opt out of this arrangement by not flying it at all. A Northern Ireland flag could be flown alongside the Union flag or all-year round.

* Victims of the Troubles should be allowed to opt into a truth recovery system on a voluntary basis.

* A two-tier parades body, one tier of which would promote dialogue and the other would adjudicate if agreement could not be reached. Uncontentious parades and demonstrations would be fast-tracked through.

* A Museum of the Troubles would be set up. This suggestion appears to substitute for the Maze Peace and Reconciliation Centre.

However, yesterday none of the parties was prepared to sign up to the proposals as they stood.

Instead, many of them embarked on bilateral meetings with other parties to try and reconcile their differences and find a way forward.

Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader, gave a fairly good-humoured response.

He referred to Margaret Thatcher's rejection of Irish Government proposals in 1984 with the words "out, out, out".

Mr Nesbitt then stated: "We are a long way from 'in, in, in' but we as an Ulster Unionist Party are staying positive because there is a prospect here to do something that will help society move on without disrespecting victims or disregarding the rule of law."

Mr Robinson said: "There are some things that are totally unacceptable and we would be outraged if we really believed that Dr Haass was serious in believing that that was going to be an outcome." He said he was disappointed by the proposals on flags but added: "Nobody is throwing the towel in."

Round-the-clock shifts looking for devil in the detail

By Noel McAdam

The main thing missing from the Haass talks yesterday was Dr Haass himself. While the Executive parties searched for the devil in the detail of the proposals on parades, flags and the past, the diplomat and his number two Meghan O'Sullivan were miles away – at meetings in London.

Negotiators for the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance were not even allowed to bring in their mobile phones to check a quick point. The parties were told Haass and O'Sullivan were uncontactable.

And while the parties could take notes – and did – they were not allowed to bring the draft 30-page document out of their rooms for fear it might fall into the hands of the wandering Press pack, stranded for the most part in the cold outside.

Since moving from the Europa to the more spacious allocations of the Stormont Hotel, the house of Haass has become a hive of activity.

After hours spent reading and rereading the paper the parties went into bilaterals last night, again without the assistance of Haass and the talks team.

The Haass paper, some said, appeared to have grown from around 16-20 pages to a more substantial document. While there was some praise, there were more problems, particularly for unionists.

The parties were there from early morning – though individuals came and went, including ministers to attend a special Executive meeting of business not dealt with at the last regular session on Thursday.

All the parties went about the exercise differently – Alliance were among the earliest to arrive and were still ensconced by early afternoon, while Sinn Fein pulled down the shutters for several hours and refused all opportunities to brief. The DUP and SDLP, on the other hand, were billeted briefly before heading off within hours to inform colleagues elsewhere.

Ulster Unionists went in shifts – Nesbitt and negotiator Jeff Dudgeon first, followed by Executive minister Danny Kennedy, co-negotiator Tom Elliott and Robin Swann, followed by an afternoon meeting with their Assembly squad.

The Press pack was then diverted by an announcement that Mr Robinson would be making a statement on the steps of Parliament Buildings. Word was the First Minister was angry and had branded the draft document "pathetic".

It was a day little infused with humour except when a departing Robinson was asked by RTE for his view on the sacking of Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas. And though he has long been a Chelsea Fan, the First Minister immediately quipped: "I'm available."

 

What's on the table... the suggestions for dealing with key issues where agreement has so far been elusive

Flags

This is the area where Peter Robinson said the draft paper was worse – from a unionist point of view – than proposals put forward last week.

One proposal he may not have reckoned with is that the Irish tricolour should fly over Stormont when Irish President Michael D Higgins or the Taoiseach Enda Kenny is in Northern Ireland. But unionists could regard them as visiting Heads of State from a foreign country.

The flying of Union flags on civic buildings is an issue that will come into play next May when the number of councils is reduced from 26 to 11 and each will decide it afresh. The two unionist parties had been working towards a "designated days plus" policy whereby the Union flag would fly on all councils on designated days but more frequently on Belfast City Hall, preferably every day.

Yesterday's paper suggests all councils should fly the Union flag on designated days but that they should have a right to opt out and not fly it at all if they choose. This would mean unionist councils reducing their flag-flying days without any automatic reciprocation in nationalist boroughs. They would be free not to fly it at all.

Past

Current proposals would allow victims of Troubles-era violence who wish to do so to enter a truth recovery process under which perpetrators would be allowed to give information without fear of prosecution.

As predicted in the Belfast Telegraph last week, the model suggested is "targeted use immunity". This would not amount to an amnesty but would specify that statements given could not be used in any court proceedings against anyone.

There is also provision for the statement to be given to an intermediary body who would validate it, but would withhold the name of the person giving the information and not pass it on as evidence to the police. This is broadly the model used to get information from the republicans on the Disappeared, people they killed and secretly buried – if an accomplice was named, that information might not be made public.

Now that justice powers are devolved, legislation might also be necessary in Stormont. That would require careful handling by party leaders and would be only likely to pass if it was broadly accepted by victims' groups.

Parades

Unionist sources have indicated that this is an area to which Dr Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan, his deputy chair, may not have devoted enough attention. It is suggested that they focused more of their efforts on the past, which at the outset was intractable.

What has been proposed is a two-tier regime for dealing with parades. There would be a slimmed down and simplified system for dealing with the vast majority of parades and demonstrations which are uncontentious. This would involve what sources described as a "box ticking exercise".

The first tier body would promote dialogue where necessary and a separate body would adjudicate if any dispute could not be resolved through dialogue.

This aspect is broadly similar to proposals agreed between Sinn Fein and the DUP in 2010. The DUP consulted the Orange Order and thought they had its agreement but the idea was rejected by the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the Order's ruling body.

Some participants feel that by combining elements of the new proposals with the ones made in 2010, agreement may be possible.

Next step

Stormont's five Executive parties today hold their final separate sessions with diplomat Richard Haass. From tomorrow, the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance negotiators will be in the same room for two days of talks leading to breakthrough or breakdown.

They may also break off for bi-laterals and the main focus will be forging agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP, who have sufficient numbers between them to pass a deal through the Assembly – in the absence of a cross-community vote.

After meetings in London yesterday, Dr Haass and his deputy Meghan O'Sullivan are starting early today, with Alliance negotiators due to meet them at 8am, followed by the SDLP at 10.15am.

Haass and O'Sullivan have set an end-of-the-week deadline for agreement on the trio of issues – flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

But privately they are believed to have indicated they are willing to stay on a few further days if agreement is still within reach.

And it also remains possible that the talks could be suspended over Christmas, resuming in the final days of December.

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