'Calm before storm' as Richard Haass groundwork laid
Published 23/11/2013 | 01:30
Critical all-party talks on flags, parades and Northern Ireland's violent past have arrived at the "calm before the storm" moment.
That assessment was given by Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott as Richard Haass yesterday declared the pre-negotiation phase over.
The US team chairing these talks will be back in Belfast on December 9 and pressing for agreements ahead of a Christmas deadline.
It is a huge challenge.
And, speaking to journalists, there was a hint from Dr Haass of lowering expectations when he talked of opportunities to make "meaningful progress" on the three issues that represent the unfinished business of the peace process.
"This is not an all or nothing situation," he said. "We are aiming high, but aiming well within the range of what can and should be accomplished."
The real test will come in the negotiations stretching over a fortnight from December 9.
Yesterday the Haass team met Attorney General John Larkin, whose suggestion earlier this week that a line should be drawn under all conflict-era investigations prompted a furious reaction from politicians and many victims.
But Dr Haass employed all his diplomatic skills and words when asked to comment. "Speaking personally, rather than professionally, it is impossible to come away from these meetings with victims and survivors groups and not be affected," he added.
A much more blunt assessment was given by UUP MLA Mr Elliott when he said: "I think what we have now is the calm before the storm. We can be sure that some things are ruled out – and in particular an amnesty."
Asked if he thought that was the position of the Haass team, he responded: "I do, yes."
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has proposed a new bank holiday should be created in Northern Ireland to celebrate the achievements of the peace process.
In its submission to the ongoing Haass talks, the party said the bank holiday could be used to promote reconciliation.
Labour also called for the existing Parades Commission to be retained but with more transparency around its rulings on contentious marches.
And the party backed the practice of only flying the Union flag on designated days, as is customary at Stormont.