New talks over outstanding Haass issues planned

Loyalists hold a white line protest in July 2013 at interface between Twaddell Avenue and the Ardoyne shopfronts area
Loyalists hold a white line protest in July 2013 at interface between Twaddell Avenue and the Ardoyne shopfronts area

Northern Ireland’s political leaders are to launch an intensive bid to make progress on outstanding Haass issues ahead of the height of next month’s marching season.

Keen to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in Belfast over a parading dispute last July, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness intend to convene two separate three-day sessions of talks with the five parties on parades, flags and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

The renewed bid comes six months after marathon negotiations chaired by former US diplomat Richard Haass ended without agreement and only weeks before the loyal order parading season, which in the past sparked rioting in north Belfast, gets into full swing.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “We don’t under-estimate the difficulties but we now have a window of opportunity.”

He said his party would also be holding talks with Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish premier Enda Kenny.

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s Stormont deputy first minister, said: “We have agreed that there will be an intensive period of talks in what is likely a very limited window of opportunity up until I suppose the first couple of days of July.

“We enter that in the same spirit as we entered the Haass talks, absolutely determined to find a way forward to get agreement.”

The negotiations are in part an effort to avoid violence which has characterised annual 12 July loyal order demonstrations in North Belfast.

Restrictions have in the past been imposed on a parade through a short street of nationalist housing in Ardoyne but a heavy security presence has been necessary to enforce the separation of hardline Protestants from Catholics and keep the peace.

In recent years dissident republicans opposed to the peace process have engaged in violence at the sectarian flashpoint, hurling petrol bombs and other missiles at riot police.

With relations at the heart of the Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein led mandatory coalition at one of their lowest ebbs, the odds on significant movement being achieved before contentious marches take place will be long.

Though no firm dates have been set for the fresh rounds of talks, it is understood the parties have been asked to submit the names of their negotiating teams by tomorrow.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore held talks with local politicians in Belfast.

He said: “I sense that there is a new momentum in efforts being made to secure agreement on the contentious issues of flags, parades and how to deal with the past.”

While Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP wanted to implement a blueprint that emerged from the Haass process, the DUP and Ulster Unionists have demanded significant changes.

The non-sectarian Alliance party wants the plan implemented but wishes to make what, it insists, are necessary changes as it goes through legislative stages at Stormont.

While the draft proposals outlined by Dr Haass remain on the table, with the party leaders having met periodically to discuss the outstanding issues over the last six months, efforts to strike a deal in his absence have made little progress.

The UUP withdrew from negotiations following a political crisis triggered in February when details emerged about a deal Sinn Fein had struck with the Government that saw on-the-run (OTRs) republicans sent letters telling them they were not wanted by police.

Mr Gilmore said an opportunity to make progress still existed.

He added: “I sense that that view is shared by the local parties and that there is a wish on the part of all of the political parties to see progress being made.”

Arrangements had been made for secretarial and administrative staff for the new talks process, the Tanaiste added.

The senior politician promised: “The Irish Government, together with the British Government, will engage closely with this process to try and get matters brought to a conclusion.”