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Political masters hard-pressed to save these talks

By Brian Rowan

After Friday's fiasco at Stormont, the political challenge of the next few days is to try to pick up the pieces.

These talks are technically still alive, but in urgent need of rescuing.

And it is now a negotiation against the clock, with nearly every participant agreed that if progress is not made before Christmas, then it is unlikely to happen before May's Westminster Election.

Without Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the Executive parties have been left with a paper of many words and paragraphs, but little agreement.

You read that in the opening sentences of the latest draft document: "As appropriate, reflecting the three-stranded approach, it represents the assessment of the UK Government, or of both the UK and Irish Governments.

"It is not intended to suggest that, as yet, parties have agreed to any or all of the positions suggested here."

Parading has walked on the spot, or perhaps even backwards, since the Haass/O'Sullivan process of this time last year.

With the stand-off on the Woodvale/Ardoyne interface in north Belfast continuing, these talks were never going to get down into the fine detail negotiation that will be needed to make progress on parading structures.

So, proposals in the draft document are based on work done during the party leader talks earlier this year and before the summer fallout over the decision to again block part of the return route of the north Belfast July 12 parade.

"Parading powers should in principle be devolved to the NI Assembly," the draft paper reads.

"The Parades Commission will remain the legally constituted body for adjudicating parades and related protests until new legislation is in force and new structures have been established," it adds.

If the process ever gets to that point, then an Office for Parades and Related Protests is proposed, as well as an Authority for Public Events Adjudication.

Nothing has emerged in or from these discussions to suggest that the north Belfast stand-off can be lifted out of the marching mud.

The Parades Panel proposed by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers months ago has not yet been established and, even if it is, there is little prospect of it being able to deliver progress in the total absence of nationalist buy-in.

There are almost 40 paragraphs in this document written as the latest attempt to shape a process on the past.

But there is disagreement on many key areas - timelines, funding, disclosure, inquests and on who should decide the themes and patterns for a report on the conflict years.

The proposals as drafted would establish:

  • An Oral History Archive
  • An Historical Investigations Unit (HIU)
  • An Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR)
  • An Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) to oversee themes, archives and information-recovery.

As part of the archive, a research project would be established, "led by academics to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the Troubles, to report within 12 months".

The latest draft document also proposes: "After five years a report on themes will be commissioned by the IRG from independent academic experts, who will decide on themes, drawing from available material, including from:

  • HIU
  • ICIR
  • The academic timeline project
  • The Oral History Archive

Many of the headings rhyme with what Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan had proposed a year ago, but the detail is different and the past remains a political battleground.

The document also proposes A Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition - meaning there has been no new thinking since the Haass decision to park this issue last December.

Friday's big news was the political fall-out over finance but, below that headline, there are many others stories of disagreement, deadlock and disputes over detail.

These talks may be technically alive, but the political doctors have little time left to save them.

Belfast Telegraph

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