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Richard Haass: Now it's time for some serious talking

As 'listening phase' ends, US negotiator on thorny issues of flags and the past wants to start hammering out a deal


Northern Ireland's political parties have just weeks to set their position on contentious issues such as flags and parading as the Haass talks enter an intensive new phase.

Dr Richard Haass, who is chairing inter-party talks, has predicted that "rubber hits the road" later this month.

It is then that the former US diplomat will return to Northern Ireland and start pushing the local parties for agreement on specifics.

"It will become much more a negotiating phase rather than just a consultative phase.

"That's when the rubber meets the road, when people have to decide if they are prepared to support this or that proposal, or this or that language. That's when we'll find out exactly what the willingness and ability, because it's both, to compromise actually is," he said.

Mr Haass was called in by the First and Deputy First Minister to help try and resolve three thorny issues which have bedevilled politics here. They are parading, the display of flags and emblems, and the legacy of our troubled past.

Speaking in Belfast yesterday, he clearly signalled that the listening stage is now almost at an end. He will be attempting to pin issues down on November 18.

He will be back again on December 7 for the most intensive phase of all, one that will involve an intensive period of talks running right up until December 21.

"It won't be until November when we make the transition and we start asking more focused questions about what they might be prepared to support when we start ultimately in November/December offering specific language," Dr Haass said.

During the "listening phase" which is now winding down he received over 400 written submissions from the public and met parties, without, party delegates say, giving very much away.

He pronounced himself pleased with what he had heard.

"I continue to believe there is good chance, a real chance of achieving meaningful progress.

"I say that for several reasons – what I take to be the mood of society, the content and tenor of the conversations with the political leadership here, and a confidence that is derived from my consultations with the British and the Irish governments," he said.

If agreement were reached he said there would be a role for the British and Irish governments as well as the local parties in validating it. He also stated that the public might be involved more directly.

Earlier Gerry Kelly (left), of Sinn Fein, had stated that the talks were becoming a "people process".

During the talks themselves the DUP had raised the issue of "validation", leading some other delegates to conclude that they may have been considering a referendum or formal consultation.

Afterwards Mr Haass was coy on this issue, but suggested that there may be a number of ways of implementing any proposals.

"Northern Ireland has devolved political institutions, you have representative government so one issue is to what degree can areas on which the political leadership is agreed can simply be implemented if you will through the Assembly. That is what representative government is all about," he said

He added: "There are questions potentially involving the governments. There is the issue of involving the people, the citizen of Northern Ireland, and there is a whole array of potential ways of doing so from informal consultations, which is what political figures do as a matter of course to something more structured and more formal."

His mood of optimism was matched by many of the party delegates who emerged from a session of round-table talks yesterday afternoon. Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, said: "We remain hopeful. We don't underestimate the challenge we face here, particularly in dealing with the legacy of the past.

"Any process to deal with the past has to be victim-centred, we are absolutely clear about that.

Gerry Kelly said he was more optimistic than he had been at the outset but added "it is up to the politicians to make this work, that's why we are on the panel. Richard Haass has no silver bullet, and neither have we."

Alex Attwood of the SDLP also emphasised the scale of the challenge. He said: "Partial fixes are not what we need. Comprehensive outcomes are what people are looking for.

"Those parties with low ambitions must recognise this. All of us must listen and learn from those outside the talks room."

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