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Analysis: Parties’ views, not those of Haass, crucial in negotiations

Meghan O'Sullivan and Dr Haass pictured taking a break from the meeting at the Stormont Hotel.

Meghan O'Sullivan and Dr Haass pictured taking a break from the meeting at the Stormont Hotel.

 

In some respects, the final days of the Haass talks are not dissimilar to the moments before a buyer and seller agree a price for a car.

In the case of the former, the prospective buyer talks up the vehicle’s shortcomings to negotiate a better price.

In the current negotiations, with their much higher political stakes, the parties – and in particular the DUP – have spent recent days complaining about the unworkability of what is on offer.

It’s a canny game in which the parties hope to secure better terms for any final deal which emerges. And they also want to be able to say to sceptical supporters: Yes, we didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but we blocked far worse alternatives.

That is not to say that the party positions are all about posturing. The DUP appears to have been genuinely unnerved by some of the proposals, particularly on flags.

But, whatever each party’s views on what is on offer, a clever negotiation would involve claims it was inadequate.

While it might appear that they are trying to convince Dr Haass to change his mind, in reality it is the positions of the parties which are crucial.

As chairman, the experienced US diplomat is facilitating the discussions and his views will carry some weight.

But ultimately, it is the parties – and realistically, the two Executive monoliths, the DUP and Sinn Fein – who are negotiating with each other here, either directly in private, in public through the media or through Dr Haass.

For that reason, today’s first head-to-head negotiations between all the parties could take much longer than the allocated day.

With a double election looming in five months’ time, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein will be keen to have the UUP or SDLP rejecting what is on offer and making it an election issue.

Yet in arguing that it is prepared to take risks if it believes in a deal on offer, the DUP points to the fact that it agreed to devolve policing and justice – which the UUP and TUV opposed – just three months before the 2010 Westminster election, a poll in which the party performed surprisingly well, despite the loss of Peter Robinson’s seat.

Given that it was the DUP and Sinn Fein who set up this process, there are risks for each if the process collapses without some sort of deal.

But the DUP knows that while that might be embarrassing, unionist voters have a long history of punishing parties seen to sell out in talks.

 

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