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Consensus the prize as Haass talks go on... and on

By Adrian Rutherford

It was three nights before Christmas, and inside the Stormont Hotel little was stirring as Richard Haass's mission to deliver consensus on parades, flags and the past dragged on.

While most of Northern Ireland is making final preparations for the big day, discussions on our most divisive issues remain deadlocked.

Haass has been focusing on a Christmas deadline since arriving in Belfast in September but, as the hours tick down, so too do the chances of reaching agreement by December 25.

The US diplomat and Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan, who are chairing the talks, seem determined to do everything they can to force through a deal.

In a tweet just before 6.30am yesterday – while most people were enjoying a Sunday lie-in – Haass revealed he was already at work.

"Up and working on new draft, integrating as best we can suggestions from parties. Goal to produce/circulate new (third) draft early afternoon," he reported.

As the deadline nears, normal festive tasks have been put on hold for some of the negotiators.

Naomi Long, who is part of the Alliance team, said she still hasn't put up her Christmas tree or started her shopping.

The family gathering at the O'Sullivan house has also been put under threat, prompting warnings from Meghan's mother that she wants her daughter home for Christmas.

Professor O'Sullivan let slip during a Press conference that her mother was particularly keen to see her home.

Asked if the talks team would still be here come Christmas, she joked: "You must have been talking to my mother."

A reminder of the challenge they face can be seen a few miles away at Twaddell Avenue, where loyalists still man a protest camp after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade.

In recent days the camp has been getting into the Christmas spirit, with a weather-beaten festive wreath hanging among the Union flags and bunting draped around the site.

A white Christmas tree has been erected in a mobile office, suitably decorated in red and blue baubles.

Protesters say their sit-in will continue throughout Christmas.

Within the community there is scepticism that the Haass negotiations will deliver anything satisfactory. One resident said he felt the talks had dragged on too long for a deal not to be reached, but didn't think there would be a satisfactory breakthrough on the key issues.

Back at the Stormont Hotel, the talks stretched into another night.

Amid the various comings and goings, at one stage Santa Claus even dropped by.

But as the day continued, the parties seemed no nearer on delivering the Christmas present Haass really wants.

Belfast Telegraph


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