The Executive parties at Stormont have been asked for their thinking on a new Northern Ireland flag, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
his newspaper understands the question is part of 'homework' set by the Haass talks team before hothouse negotiations begin next week.
Those talks are focused on the unfinished business of the peace process – specifically the vexed issues of flags, parades and the past.
The questions posed by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass and talks vice-chair Dr Meghan O'Sullivan were sent to the parties on Tuesday last week.
And one source confirmed the US team has asked for answers before returning here in a few days' time.
That is when a two-week intense negotiation will begin.
Today is the first anniversary of the controversial council vote in Belfast to reduce the flying of the Union flag on the City Hall to designated days.
One talks insider told this newspaper the question asked by the Haass Team was about a "neutral" flag. But the Belfast Telegraph understands the actual wording refers to a "new" flag and what a process to design and validate it might look like.
This morning the parties to the talks are expected to meet to discuss the formation of a working group or groups to address the Haass questions.
But already there is opposition to the idea of a new flag.
A senior unionist told this newspaper: "I believe dealing with the flag issue is still probably the most difficult aspect (of the talks) in terms of finding a resolution. People are still poles apart in relation to flags."
Asked if a new Northern Ireland flag would be an acceptable replacement for the Union flag, he responded: "No."
Another talks insider said: "He (Haass) knows a neutral flag is not a solution or an answer."
But, just days before this negotiation enters its most critical phase, the question has been asked.
The parties at the talks table are the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance as well as the two Stormont junior ministers, Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann.
"I suspect some of the issues (raised in the Haass questions) are not a runner in the process," one negotiator told this newspaper.
The questions are not being viewed as "a testing of proposals", but more an exploration of all options. They are being asked across the range of issues under discussion – not just on flags, but parades and the past.
On the last of those issues – addressing Northern Ireland's violent past and the search for the truth – the parties were asked to look at the existing processes and how they might be "reformed, combined or improved".
They have also been asked to look at the issue of services that would best meet the needs of victims and survivors.
Recently the negotiating teams from political parties involved met with Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone and representatives of the Victims Forum.
Volatile issue a perennial source of division through history
By Claire Williamson
Flags remain a contentious and volatile issue in Northern Ireland.
While the law has attempted to regulate the controversial issue, it has been the source of many protests.
Northern Ireland has not had its own flag since 1972.
The flag of the Government of Northern Ireland was officially named The Ulster Banner and was used from 1953 to 1972.
Based on the flag of England and the flag of the province of Ulster, it had the Red Hand of Ulster in a white star – points of the star represented the six counties of Northern Ireland.
But when the Northern Ireland Government was dissolved under the Nor thern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, the flag ceased to carry any official status. Also known as the 'Red Hand of Ulster' or the 'Ulster Flag', it is still used by some unionists and sporting organisations
The only official flag to be flown is the Union flag, which is an amalgamation of the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick representing England, Scotland and Ireland.
In 1954 the Northern Ireland Parliament passed the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act. This Act gave police the power to remove or order to remove any emblem that could lead to a breach of the peace – but it was repealed in 1987.
The issue was recognised in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which noted the "sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division".
The most recent legislation on the contentious subject was the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, which gave the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland power over the regulation of flags at Government buildings and on designated days.