The two former US diplomats leading crunch talks on flags, parades and the past have warned Northern Ireland’s political parties that the time has finally come to cut a deal.
As Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan prepare for a last-ditch effort to broker an agreement on Northern Ireland’s most divisive issues, they said failure could squander the gains made since the Good Friday Agreement.
“At some point political leaders have to decide whether they would rather have this agreement or not to have an agreement,” Dr Haass said bluntly last night.
Shortly after 9am tomorrow the two foreign policy experts will fly in to Belfast to start the process all over again. Dr Haass is aiming to conclude discussions and launch a deal on Monday afternoon — a tight deadline.
Failing that, he and Dr O’Sullivan will compile a report spelling out in detail the compromises that need to be made to build a shared future.
Last July they were were invited here by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the First and Deputy First Ministers, to chair the talks, which reached an intensive phase earlier this week.
In the two days prior to Christmas Eve, Professor O’Sullivan and Dr Haass worked for 40 hours in the hope of securing a deal.
They have made no secret of the fact that this is a last push and it is up to local political leaders whether it succeeds or not.
“We have decided to return to Belfast in a final effort to help Northern Ireland's political leaders reach agreement. We are not certain we will succeed, but we are certain that the consequences of either success or failure are so great that we must spare no effort to see that the talks end in consensus,” they wrote in an exclusive article for the Belfast Telegraph.
“It will not, however, be the two of us who make this decision. We will do all we can, but the choice is up to the parties, guided by their understanding of what Northern Ireland’s people desire and deserve. No outsider can ever want agreement more than insiders do,” they said, putting the onus on local politicians to move forward.
The duo highlighted the dangers to Northern Ireland’s stability and reputation if politicians cannot seize the opportunity and nudge the peace process over these remaining hurdles.
“Urgency must be the order of the day. The gains made over the past decade-and-a-half can be lost, and even if they are not, much more needs to happen before peace and a shared future are assured,” they warned.
The pair added that “an agreement from these negotiations would not solve all the remaining problems, but it would dramatically increase the odds that Northern Ireland begins to live up to its potential. The opportunity should be seized while it still exists”.
But they warned “there is as yet no agreement and no certainty one will emerge”.
The most intractable area is flags, where the Haass team had proposed that all council headquarters, nationalist as well as unionist, should fly the Union flag on designated days.
There is a sense of frustration when they write that “what is on the table falls far short of what is needed”.
The negotiations so far have involved Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan writing a series of drafts on a potential agreement, taking soundings from the parties and then redrafting them to meet their concerns. They are currently on draft four and will submit a fifth to the parties this evening.
“The divisions over the draft text are many and deep,” they state. The two chairmen added that “the reality is that no party in a diverse democracy can have all it wants”.
“Compromise is essential. What matters is whether Northern Ireland would be better off with this agreement. We believe the answer to that question is yes — a resounding yes,” they concluded.