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Richard Haass in new talks as process reaches a key stage


©William Cherry/Presseye

The US team chairing major all-party talks on flags, parades and the past is back in Belfast today as the negotiations step up a gear.

During week-long negotiations, Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan will meet each of the Executive parties twice before a round table session on Friday.

"We have reached a crucial stage," DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said "There are major challenges in front of us."

At the end of his last visit, Dr Haass said the talks would move from consultation to negotiation when he returned.

"The real stuff with Haass begins this week," Sean Murray of Sinn Fein said. "It's down to the nitty-gritty."

The DUP will meet with Haass tomorrow and Thursday with the Sinn Fein meetings planned tomorrow and Friday.

Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP also have two meetings logged in the Haass diary.

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"The big issue that Haass has to drill into is the past," Alex Attwood of the SDLP said.

Mr Donaldson accepts that of the three issues under discussion, the past is the "greater challenge".

But he added: "I don't think it's right to discount the importance of the other issues (flags and parades)."

The Ulster Unionists have their meetings with Haass today and on Friday. Party negotiator Tom Elliott believes some progress can be made on parades and the past, but he senses deadlock on the question of flags.

Alliance MP and negotiator Naomi Long expects Haass will "test ideas" this week.

Victims representatives and retired RUC officers are also expected to meet with the Haass team.

The talks process is building towards a hothouse negotiation stretching across a couple of weeks next month.

And the backdrop could be an "upscaling" of parades and protests linked to marching and flag disputes.

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