Maze site to feature in critical Haass discussions
The controversial Maze Peace Centre has become part of the Haass talks – although it is not clear what part, if any, it will play in final proposals.
The Belfast Telegraph understands a section on the shelved project is included in a discussion document on the past read by Executive parties during lengthy meetings with the US talks team on Friday and Saturday.
Those multi-party discussions on flags, parades and the past will now move into a critical four-day phase – aimed at reaching agreements before the end of this week.
With Richard Haass and vice chair Meghan O'Sullivan in London today for a meeting with the Government, negotiators in Belfast will read a draft composite document prepared by the US team. It covers the three key themes in this negotiation.
A near 10-hour period stretching from this morning through to teatime has been set aside for the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance to read through the paperwork.
That will be happening at a Belfast hotel.
The parties are not allowed mobile phones in the rooms where the document is being read and they cannot take it away.
Last Friday and Saturday, Dr Haass and Dr O'Sullivan met Sinn Fein, Alliance, DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionist negotiators – each meeting lasting around three hours.
And it was in this phase of the talks that the draft discussion paper on the past was studied.
Among many issues, it includes that section on the Maze Peace Centre – the project controversially shelved by First Minister Peter Robinson months ago.
One talks insider cautioned against over-reading its presence in the paper.
The depth of the document suggests the US team wants to make a detailed report addressing:
The needs of victims and survivors;
Reconciliation, including a forum, peace centre and museum;
How immunity might assist information or truth recovery;
Investigations under one umbrella, and
Mechanisms for story-telling.
It suggests chunks of the Eames/Bradley report are being revisited, including in the areas of investigation and information recovery.
The draft discussion document is understood to describe 'use immunity (limited)'.
It is a technical term and protects a witness against self-incrimination, but leaves open the prospect of prosecution based on evidence not gathered from protected testimony.
According to talks insiders, it is in the areas of the past and on parades that negotiators believe most progress can be made, but there is still no indication of movement on flags.
A senior DUP source described "quite a distance to go on all issues".
His party wants the Union flag displayed on all councils on designated days and for Belfast to be a "special case".
But Sinn Fein's position is described within the words "equality or neutrality" – meaning two flags or none.
At the weekend, SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood refused to discuss the detail of any documents within the process – but on the issue of victims and survivors said: "Those who have suffered the most have proven themselves to be the best and bravest of all in shaping these talks. We can't let them down."
Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott said there was an opportunity for society to move forward: "But we will not do it at the cost of disrespecting innocent victims or disregarding the rule of law."
Alliance MP Naomi Long said: "We are carrying the hopes of a lot of people for the future and they will not judge us kindly if we fail to deliver."
Return of the 'dead duck' only a matter of time
By Noel McAdam
In public both Sinn Fein and the DUP have insisted the Maze Peace and Reconciliation centre and accompanying development are a "dead duck".
But in reality it was only a matter of time before the pivotal peace process project appeared back on the political agenda.
Which is not to say that Peter Robinson's out-of-the-blue u-turn is itself about to be overturned anytime soon.
Indeed, any potential substantive movement over the centre, and its location, may not prove possible this side of the next Assembly elections in 2016.
Yet it was the First Minister who hailed the ground-breaking project as an "international beacon" to the victory of peace over violence – while simultaneously insisting his party would have a veto over each and every detail.
The upbeat attitude was characterised by MLA Jimmy Spratt's description of the nay-sayers opposed to the proposals as "nutters".
But the DUP has efficient antenna and was increasingly aware that on the ground and the 'fields' of the July 12 Orange Order parades, support was growing for the campaign launched by Ulster Unionists along with Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP MLA David McNarry with a petition calling for the Maze prison buildings to be de-listed and demolished.
Even though Mr Robinson had made clear the Maze would not have been his choice, his now infamous letter to party members from his Florida holiday base in August still represented a dramatic climbdown.
Sinn Fein was furious and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warned there would be no other development on the site without the centre, with the potential loss of 5,000 jobs.
Robinson in turn then warned it would be "cruel" of Sinn Fein to "punish the people of Northern Ireland" before the public storm was put to one side in the run-up to the Invesment Conference.
Let's hope that with the deadline looming, agreement is near
By Noel McAdam
Like the darkest hour before dawn, expectations always tend to be lowered just before the breakthrough.
Certainly when it comes to crunch political negotiations in Northern Ireland.
Remember Lord Kilclooney's 10-foot bargepole in the run-up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement? And the inter-party gloom the day before the St Andrews Agreement of 2006?
The negotiations chaired by American diplomat Richard Haass may have less international significance but are vital to the successful bedding down of the peace process – and the parties know it.
Closeted in separate hotel rooms, the representatives of the main parties will today begin their perusal of a draft paper drawn up by the US team.
Yet even if the Haass talks finalise a document this week, it is still not clear if it will immediately become public.
While the broad brush of any deal reached between the Executive parties is likely to leak, the detail of the proposals are due to be sent in the first instance to First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
It was the DUP leader and senior Sinn Fein figure who agreed to commission Dr Haass to broker new talks.
So it will then be up to Stormont's 'top two' then to decide when the full paper is released as the five parties – DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance – prepare to sell the proposals to their respective constituencies.
Questions to the Office of the First and Deputy First have failed to elicit whether Haass becomes public property right away or will be sent first to the British and Irish – and watching American –governments.
But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Richard Haass and his vice-chair Meghan O'Sullivan have set a tentative deadline of the end of this week, following two days of so-called 'hot house' negotiations on the key issues of flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
But privately they are believed to have indicated they are willing to stay on a few further days if agreement is within reach.
And it is also still possible that the talks could be suspended over Christmas and resume early in 2014. After years of stalemate on all three major issues – and in particular a mechanism for handling the Past, which has remained static since the four-year-old Eames/Bradley report – the hopes of Haass is unlikely to be ditched for the sake of a few more weeks.
The people of Northern Ireland are well used to deadlines slipping, in some cases – such as decommissioning – for years. Yet it appears the chances of proposals emerging this week are fair.