Progress has been made towards a political deal on the three main outstanding peace process disputes in Northern Ireland but big issues remain unresolved, Stormont’s First Minister has said.
As Peter Robinson gave his assessment of continuing negotiations between the Executive’s five coalition parties on a proposed agreement on flags, parades and the legacy of the past, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was more realistic than optimistic about the chances of a settlement before St Patrick’s Day in mid-March.
The five party leaders have been holding a series of meetings in recent weeks to try to reach consensus on draft proposals put forward by former US diplomat Richard Haass. The negotiations are set to continue through February.
Dr Haass produced the blueprint after six months of talks ended on New Year’s Eve without breakthrough.
While Sinn Fein and the SDLP want to implement Dr Haass’s draft settlement as it stands, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Ulster Unionists (UUP) want significant changes.
The cross-community Alliance party wants the plan implemented but with what it insists are necessary amendments as it goes through the legislative stages at Stormont.
With the US administration in Washington taking a keen interest, it would be seen as potentially embarrassing for Stormont’s leaders to make their traditional trip to the White House on St Patrick’s Day without an agreement.
DUP leader Mr Robinson reiterated his view that it was not acceptable for nationalists and republicans to expect unionists to move to their position.
“I think there is progress,” he said of the talks. “The very fact that you continue to discuss these issues, it is easy to see that some of those issues have been resolved.
“There are still outstanding issues, and there are still some big issues that have to be resolved. And they will only be resolved if people take a position where they are prepared to negotiate, rather than sit back and hope that people come to their positions, which I have to say is the position of some parties at the present time.”
Twelve days ago Sinn Fein’s Mr McGuinness said he felt a breakthrough was needed in around three weeks.
Today he insisted he was not imposing a deadline, but said he was not prepared to go round in circles.
“I am not involved in these discussions to go round a mulberry bush, I think that would insult the intelligence of the people we represent,” he said.
“This is about making an assessment after we do those meetings as to whether or not a way forward can be found.
“I am in it to find the way forward, to explore the difficulties that are there for the Ulster Unionist Party and for the DUP and to get an outcome which will see put in place the work that Haass engaged in, which clearly is of massive benefit to victims, clearly is of massive benefit to those who wish to march and those who protest at marching, and massive to those who wish to engage on a mature discussion on Britishness and Irishness within our society.”
Asked about the prospect of a deal before St Patrick’s Day, he replied: “I can’t say I am optimistic, I am realistic.”
The Haass process was set up last July to deal with what have become three of the primary obstacles to meaningful reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Tensions over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while disputes over the flying of flags - both on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods - continue to be a source of community conflict.
Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict where opposing sides retain competing narratives of what happened and victims still demand truth and justice in relation to more than 3,000 unsolved murders.
The proposed agreement does not envisage an imminent solution on flags, and instead sees the setting up of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the problem over a longer time-frame - potentially 18 months.
On parades, Dr Haass recommended the replacement of the often controversial UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events.
On the past, the document proposes a new Historical Investigations Unit to take on the investigatory responsibilities of the police’s Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman’s office for Troubles-related crimes.
For people searching for the truth of what happened to loved ones, even though justice has proved elusive, the draft deal also proposes the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.
This would encourage those involved in killings to provide details with the assurance that their revelations could not be used against them in a court of law - a form of limited immunity from prosecution similar to that offered to those who decommissioned weapons during the Troubles and those who passed on information on the location of secretly buried victims of republican paramilitaries.