Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson has said he does not expect difficult issues around parades, flags and the past to be resolved by Christmas.
After a meeting with former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass in east Belfast, the Democratic Unionist leader accepted that the December deadline for resolution would be difficult to meet but claimed significant progress could be made.
Speaking outside the Stormont Hotel flanked by Orange Order chaplain Reverend Mervyn Gibson, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Stormont Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, he said: “Do I believe if we will be able to have all of these issues cut and dried and resolved by Christmas, no I don’t. Do I believe that there can be progress on each of them and some more than others, yes I do. I believe it is possible to make progress.”
The DUP delegation met with Dr Haass for about one hour and 15 minutes during the second day of negotiations. Earlier, the ex-White House special envoy held discussions with the Ulster Unionist Party and yesterday he met with Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
The cross community Alliance Party are due to make their representations at the Stormont Hotel later today.
Outlining the DUP’s position, Mr Robinson said they were “determined to contribute in a positive manner” but noted they had their own “very distinct angle of vision” on the three contentious issues..
He said: “We believe that there are certain freedoms that need to be enshrined and protected. One of those clearly is the ability for people to assemble and to parade and we have obviously indicated how important that is to our community - that it is part of the unionist, loyalist, Protestant culture in Northern Ireland.
“We have touched on the issue of flags and made it very clear that for us a shared future is not a neutral environment - it is a shared future within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland constitutionally is part of the United Kingdom, the Union flag is the flag of our country and should be respected.
“We have dealt with the issues of the past and how difficult it would be to get a common narrative. But we have indicated some areas where we think progress could be made.”
Mr Robinson also acknowledged there would be challenges ahead.
“November and December will be the tough months when we have to get down to the real work,” he added.
Dr Haass, who was envoy to Northern Ireland during George Bush’s presidency in 2001-03, flew into Belfast last night. He is chairing the new political talks initiative aimed at resolving three of the most divisive issues facing the power sharing institutions at Stormont.
Supported by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, he is attempting to find consensus on the troublesome issues of flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the legacy of the past.
He has acknowledged that a troubled summer in Northern Ireland, when simmering community tensions boiled over into street disorder on a number of occasions, was indicative of the urgency around finding an agreed way forward.
Speaking shortly after he arrived, Dr Haass said: “There’s been tremendous progress but, that said, there is still a real need to move things forward and that is again why we are here.”
Dr Haass is due to meet all five Executive parties for plenary talks on Friday.
There will also be engagements with senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties. Individuals and other organisations have been urged to make their views known to the Haass team.
A further round of talks will be held next month with more substantive negotiations in November ahead of the December deadline for recommendations on the shared future.