Belfast Telegraph

Unionists urged to declare stance

Unionist leaders must tell the public if they back the outcome of the Haass peace issues talks or not, Martin McGuinness has said.

Stormont's Deputy First Minister challenged the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists to clarify where they stand on the draft agreement proposed by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass on how to solve long-standing disputes on flags, parades and dealing with the past.

After a six-month negotiation process involving all five Executive parties Dr Haass ended a marathon talks session on Tuesday having failed to secure an agreed settlement by his end-of-year deadline.

But he has insisted the document he has produced provides the basis for future agreement, and has urged the parties to act where consensus exists.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have endorsed the proposals, while the cross-community Alliance Party said it would support the proposal on the past, but has raised issues about suggested resolutions on flags and parades.

While the leadership of the DUP and UUP are to consult the ruling executives of their respective parties, both have not indicated whether they will recommend the blueprint to their party faithful, with both citing concerns about elements of the text.

Mr McGuinness said the time had come for unionists to show their hand.

"The Haass negotiations finished in the early hours of Tuesday morning," he said.

"They finished with a document that was put to all of the parties present. The various negotiating teams were asked whether or not they were prepared to recommend the text to their party executives for acceptance.

"There is no ambiguity on where Sinn Fein stands. We have made it clear that despite reservations we were prepared to move forward and recommend acceptance.

"Our involvement in the Peace Process has for almost two decades been characterised by leadership and willingness to compromise. In that spirit our negotiations team recommended acceptance of the Haass approach.

"It is not unreasonable to ask both unionist party leaderships if they will be recommending acceptance of the Haass document to their party executives when and if they meet, rather than attempt to renegotiate the Haass proposals.

"People deserve to know the answers to these simple questions. We are elected to sort out these matters and seek resolutions.

"Over six months' work went into these proposals. The issues dealt with are not going away."

At the conclusion of the talks, Stormont First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson did not indicate if he would be asking his party to back the agreement.

"I think it is right that parties should first discuss the working report internally within their own structures while encouraging constructive debate more widely," he said.

The Ulster Unionist executive will meet on Monday to discuss the proposals.

Ahead of the meeting, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "Our talks team will brief the executive on the final document, and reach a decision on the way forward."

The Haass process was set up in July to deal with what have become three of the primary obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Tensions over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while disputes over the flying of flags - both on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods - continue to be a source of community conflict.

Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict where opposing sides retain competing narratives of what happened and victims still demand both truth and justice in relation to more than 3,000 unsolved murders.

The proposed agreement does not envisage an imminent solution on flags, and instead envisages the setting up of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the problem over a longer time frame - potentially 18 months.

On parades, Dr Haass recommended the replacement of the oft-controversial UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events.

On the past, the document proposes a new Historical Investigations Unit to take on the investigatory responsibilities of the police's Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman's office in regard to Troubles related crimes.

For those victims searching the truth of what happened to their loved ones, even though justice has proved elusive, the draft deal also proposes the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).

This would encourage those involved in killings to provide details with the assurance that their revelations could not be used against them in a court of law - a form of limited immunity from prosecution similar to that offered to those who decommissioned weapons during the Troubles and those who passed on information on the location of secretly buried victims of republican paramilitaries.

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