Belfast Telegraph

Robinson delegation meets Haass

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson has said he does not expect difficult issues around parades, flags and the past to be resolved by Christmas.

After a meeting with former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass in east Belfast, the Democratic Unionist leader accepted that the December deadline for resolution would be difficult to meet but claimed significant progress could be made.

Speaking outside the Stormont Hotel flanked by Orange Order chaplain Reverend Mervyn Gibson, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Stormont Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, he said : " Do I believe if we will be able to have all of these issues cut and dried and resolved by Christmas, no I don't. Do I believe that there can be progress on each of them and some more than others, yes I do. I believe it is possible to make progress."

The DUP delegation met with Dr Haass for about one hour and 15 minutes during the second day of negotiations. Earlier, the ex-White House special envoy held discussions with the Ulster Unionist Party and yesterday he met with Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

The cross community Alliance Party are due to make their representations at the Stormont Hotel later today.

Outlining the DUP's position, Mr Robinson said they were "determined to contribute in a positive manner" but noted they had their own " very distinct angle of vision" on the three contentious issues..

He said: "We believe that there are certain freedoms that need to be enshrined and protected. One of those clearly is the ability for people to assemble and to parade and we have obviously indicated how important that is to our community - that it is part of the unionist, loyalist, Protestant culture in Northern Ireland.

"We have touched on the issue of flags and made it very clear that for us a shared future is not a neutral environment - it is a shared future within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland constitutionally is part of the United Kingdom, the Union flag is the flag of our country and should be respected.

"We have dealt with the issues of the past and how difficult it would be to get a common narrative. But we have indicated some areas where we think progress could be made."

Mr Robinson also acknowledged there would be challenges ahead.

"November and December will be the tough months when we have to get down to the real work," he added.

Dr Haass, who was envoy to Northern Ireland during George Bush's presidency in 2001-03, flew into Belfast last night. He is chairing the new political talks initiative aimed at resolving three of the most divisive issues facing the power sharing institutions at Stormont.

Supported by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, he is attempting to find consensus on the troublesome issues of flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the legacy of the past.

He has acknowledged that a troubled summer in Northern Ireland, when simmering community tensions boiled over into street disorder on a number of occasions, was indicative of the urgency around finding an agreed way forward.

Speaking shortly after he arrived, Dr Haass said: "There's been tremendous progress but, that said, there is still a real need to move things forward and that is again why we are here."

Dr Haass is due to meet all five Executive parties for plenary talks on Friday.

There will also be engagements with senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties. Individuals and other organisations have been urged to make their views known to the Haass team.

A further round of talks will be held next month with more substantive negotiations in November ahead of the December deadline for recommendations on the shared future.

Unrest on the streets during the summer has been accompanied by deteriorating relations at the heart of the DUP-Sinn Fein led power-sharing administration at Stormont.

One issue that exemplified the political tensions was a move by the DUP to withdraw support for a peace and reconciliation centre at the site of the former Maze paramilitary prison near Lisburn.

In a clear sign that the decision still is the source of much resentment within Sinn Fein, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tonight condemned the DUP's stance in strong terms.

In a speech delivered in Warrington, the scene of a notorious IRA bomb during the Troubles, the Sinn Fein veteran said: "Sinn Fein is disappointed that our partners in government in the north of Ireland, the DUP, have reneged on a Programme for Government commitment to build a peace centre at the Maze Long Kesh site.

"For many, given the journey we have all trodden and the changes that have come about and our work abroad as advocates of peace building, it beggars belief that we cannot agree on the building of a peace centre.

"But what is it that has tripped us up? What has tripped us up is the past, how we speak about it, how we present it, and how we address it. And its role in reconciliation."

He added: "I am a firm believer that we can deal with every issue if we get the framework right and the context right. Thus far, when it comes to dealing with the past, we have achieved neither."

But Mr McGuinness insisted he still had hopes for the future.

"Dealing with the past will help and guide us in our building of the future," he said.

"And building for the future will enable us to deal with the past.

"The thinking which brought us all to the negotiating table must be maintained and must drive us forward. That is, there can be no winners. And that means there must be no losers. If we move forward on this premise then we are duty bound to acknowledge and respect our differences and to compromise. There is no other way.

"Relying on old certainties will only produce old results. We need new approaches, new relationships and new results."

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