Northern Ireland’s political leaders have published a draft agreement on outstanding peace process issues only hours after Executive parties failed to reach consensus on the proposals.
The stalled blueprint for dealing with divisive problems around flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles was drawn up by former US diplomat Richard Haass, who chaired a six-month five-party talks process that ended at 5am this morning without a settlement.
Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who had commissioned the one-time White House special envoy to oversee the negotiations, put the document on the website of their joint office so people could assess the plans for themselves.
While Dr Haass did not meet his end-of-year deadline to achieve consensus on the long running disputes, his draft agreement could yet form the basis for a deal.
The two nationalist parties - Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) - have signalled a willingness to back his proposals.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists have acknowledged progress has been made and have pledged to take the document back for consultation with their respective party executives, but both have expressed major concerns about details of the paper as it stands.
The cross-community Alliance Party said it would endorse the document’s proposals on the past, but rejected the suggested resolutions on flags and parades in their current form.
The parties are now set to establish a Stormont working group to try and finally reach an accommodation in 2014.
But without the direction of such an experienced independent chair and with elections looming in May, some fear the window of opportunity may have passed.
Before flying home to the United States, Dr Haass had urged Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to publish the document.
“We believe that when this happens it will receive and enjoy considerable public support and it will help contribute to an already robust debate that is taking place in Northern Ireland about its past, its present and its future,” he said early this morning.
The broad structure of the draft agreement was already largely in the public domain as a consequence of information leaks throughout the talks process.
But as many of the stumbling blocks, particularly for unionists, appeared to lie not in the framework but in the detail, the publication of the full 40-page document should give the public a better sense of what exactly was on the table.
The Haass process was set up in 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 both truth and justice in relation to more than 3,000 unsolved murders.
The draft’s publication has confirmed what was already widely known in respect of flags - that any form of deal was not even close.
The document instead envisaged 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 oft-controversial UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events.
This would consist of an administrative arm - the Office of Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests - to deal with applications to march and protest and potentially facilitate mediation between groups.
It would also see the creation of the Authority for Public Events and Adjudication - an independent regulatory body, chaired by a legal figure, that would deliberate on applications for unresolvable parading disputes.
Like the Parades Commission, it would have seven independent members, but the new authority would also provide more scope for appealing decisions.
Detail around Dr Haass’s proposal for a code of conduct for participants in parades and protests are understood to be one of the issues causing unionists concern, amid fears too much of the onus of responsibility will be borne by the Protestant loyal orders.
On the past, the document proposes a new Historical Investigations Unit to take on the investigatory responsibilities of the police’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman’s office.
For those victims searching the truth of what happened to their loved ones, even though justice has proved elusive, the draft deal proposes the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).
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.
Controversially, the draft also bestows the ICIR with responsibility for assessing wider themes and patterns in the conflict - such as alleged state collusion with paramilitaries or alleged paramilitary ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted around the Irish border.
It is understood unionists are unhappy at the number of potential themes suggested by Dr Haass that focus on alleged illegal activity by state forces.
The proposals on the past also advocate improvement of services for victims, including mental health treatment, and the creation of a Troubles historical archive.
Earlier Prime Minister David Cameron said the failure to achieve a breakthrough before New Year was disappointing, but urged the parties to “keep going”.
“Although it is disappointing the parties have not been able to reach full agreement at this stage, these talks have achieved much common ground, providing a basis for continuing discussions,” he said.
“There is a shared commitment to making progress on these very difficult issues that continue to be a focus for tension and division across the community.
“I urge the parties to keep going. I also want to thank Dr Richard Haass and his team for their dedicated work.
“The Government and the Northern Ireland parties will continue to work together to strengthen further the foundations for peace, stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Haass was supported throughout the process by talks vice chair Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, a Harvard professor and US foreign affairs expert heavily involved in the reconstruction of post-conflict Iraq.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams tonight said the publication of their draft document was a “welcome development”.
â?¬He added: “I would also appeal to all of the parties to the talks and to the two governments (Irish and British) to embrace the Haass proposals as a significant step forward.”
Emerging from the talks venue at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast earlier, Democratic Unionist negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson said progress had been made but a number of difficulties remained.
“We do not have an agreement this evening but we are committed to continuing this work beyond now in dialogue with others to try and resolve the outstanding issues that need to be addressed,” said the Lagan Valley MP.
“We owe that to the people of Northern Ireland, especially to the innocent victims of terrorism who have suffered so much over the decades.”
A spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, commended Dr Haass for a “remarkable job”.
“We are disappointed that Northern Ireland’s political leaders did not conclude an agreement today,” she said.
“We commend the work of the independent chair and his team. Through months of consultations with civil society and the political parties - undertaken at the request of the Northern Ireland Executive - Richard Haass and his team have done a remarkable job.
“We believe that the draft text produced through the all-party process represents real progress and makes a valuable contribution.
“We urge Northern Ireland’s political leaders to continue to work together to build on this progress, including implementing the proposals where consensus already exists and as it emerges in all three areas: parades, flags and emblems, and contending with the legacy of the past.
“Engaging in a sustained dialogue with civil society can help the parties find a sustainable path forward to overcome sectarian divisions.
“The United States has always stood with the people and institutions of Northern Ireland and will continue to do so.”
First Minister Mr Robinson said it was important that momentum built up during the Haass process was not lost.
“I want to thank Richard, Meghan and their colleagues for months of arduous and comprehensive engagement carried out in the most respectful and meticulous manner,” he said.
“Northern Ireland has much to thank them for and must demonstrate that the high level of agreement achieved can be built upon.
“I do not recognise as accurate reports of ‘talks failure’ given the wide gulf that existed on the Haass team’s arrival and the broad areas of agreement on their departure. Yes, every party had, and expressed, concerns about features in the final product but I detect from each of the parties a willingness to ‘work on’ to complete the task. We must consider how best to do this in the near future.
“However, I think it is right that parties should first discuss the working report internally within their own structures while encouraging constructive debate more widely. We each must identify, not only areas where improvements are being sought, but also, how the problems identified by others can be accommodated in a way that does no injury to our own deeply held positions.
“I will recommend to my party colleagues that they support the suggestion made by Dr Haass that a ‘working group’ be established to see how agreed elements can be taken forward while seeking to resolve areas where disagreement remains.
“We must not lose the momentum and we each should take care that areas of agreement are not allowed to unravel.”
The draft agreement can be viewed online at http://www.northernireland.gov.uk/haass.pdf