Parties clash over focus on parades
Politicians in Northern Ireland have clashed over whether a contentious loyal order parade in Belfast should be a key factor in a new talks procedure aimed at resolving outstanding peace process issues.
Unionist representatives have indicated that resolution to contention surrounding the banned Orange Order parade in the north of the city is vital if the wider negotiations between the five parties in the power-sharing executive are to succeed.
But Sinn Fein rejected any suggestion of dealing with individual parades in the talks initiative.
The general issue of disputed parades is one of three thorny problems being discussed at Stormont over three days' of meetings, with issues around flags and the past.
But both the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists have attempted to focus in on the controversial Woodvale/Crumlin Road parade.
In recent years serious rioting has broken out on July 12, the most important day of the marching season in Northern Ireland, linked to that parade's evening route.
In the years it was given permission to pass the nationalist Ardoyne area on the Crumlin Road, republicans rioted. When it was banned last year, loyalists rioted. Loyalists have manned a protest camp at the community interface ever since, requiring a policing operation costing almost £10 million.
As it did last year, the Parades Commission adjudication body has given permission, with restrictions, for Orangemen to parade down the disputed section of the road on the morning of July 12.
Its decision on the more contentious evening parade is due tomorrow.
The exchanges on the first day of talks at Parliament Buildings made clear the imminent determination on whether that parade will be allowed to proceed hangs like a shadow over the initiative and has the potential to destabilise the process.
DUP negotiator Jonathan Bell stressed the importance of resolving the disputed north Belfast parade.
"We are very clear that the success of these talks will be based upon tolerance and respect," he said.
"We look very much towards recent issues of parading, we look at the deficit there is within nationalism - the lack of tolerance, the lack of respect, the lack of accommodation."
He said if nationalism and republicanism did not change their approach to the matter then the prospects of success in the talks were "very limited".
UUP negotiator Tom Elliott accused other parties of refusing to confront the parading issue.
"We are talking round things as opposed to talking about specific issues," he said.
"To me, we need to deal with the hard issues. There are a lot of difficult issues out there at the moment and we need to talk specifically about them.
"We're talking about controversial parades and protests and others don't want to talk about them and take them on. But that's their choice."
As the first day of talks ended, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly insisted the remit was to deal with the three wider problems.
"Let's be very, very clear about this, obviously there are three issues - one is parades and protests, one is flags and emblems and other one is the legacy of the past.
"So we are talking about the overall issues."
Mr Kelly added: "So to be very clear - we are not dealing with specific parades or protests in terms of these discussions, and I want to make that absolutely crystal clear."
The renewed talks bid comes at Stormont six months after marathon negotiations chaired by former US diplomat Richard Haass ended without agreement.
While draft proposals outlined by Dr Haass remain on the table, with the party leaders having met periodically to discuss the outstanding issues since January, efforts to strike a deal in his absence have made little progress.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said it was time to "get things sorted out".
He also called on the UK and Irish governments to become directly involved in the process.
"We have been working around this for long enough," he said.
"We have had four months of Haass, we have had six months of leaders' talks, we know what the issues are and we now need a solution.
"The SDLP are there to ensure we do what is necessary in the next two or three weeks to solve and bring the thing to a conclusion."
Alliance party leader David Ford said he was not sure an agreement could be struck this week but expressed hope consensus could be found after another three day round of talks planned next week.
"We need to have an agreement on the past for the sake of the victims and because it is costing huge sums to the justice system, we need to deal with the contentious issue of flags, which are all across Belfast annoying people, and we also need to deal with the resolution of parades," he said.
"Those, if people are willing, can be resolved in six days of intensive talks and it is now up to others not to demand that they get their own way on everything, but that they agree an honourable compromise."