US diplomat Richard Haass flew back into Belfast yesterday for a second round of talks about parades, the past and flags — but face-to-face negotiations are not expected to even commence until the end of next month.
Dr Haass spoke to journalists at the Europa Hotel in Belfast city centre yesterday morning but again was coy about the detail of what is being discussed.
On Friday, the five Executive parties — the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and Alliance — will have a second “plenary” meeting with Dr Haass after which he will again speak to reporters.
However, last night it emerged that negotiations between those parties will not even begin until late in November, just weeks before the mid-December deadline for agreement.
Several bilateral meetings, understood to have been organised informally between the parties rather than by Dr Haass’s team, have taken place over recent weeks. But it is understood that the contacts have largely involved a stating of each side’s position, rather than frank debate.
This week, Dr Haass will have discussions in London with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and new shadow secretary of state Ivan Lewis, as well as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster.
Dr Haass will also travel to Dublin for talks with the Taoiseach and Tanaiste. He said that the London and Dublin governments had “both interest and influence” in Northern Ireland so it would be “remiss” of him not to speak to them.
Some of the parties involved in the talks are expecting Dr Haass to at least have a discussion document for them on Friday which will allow them to study the outline of his thinking before negotiations begin.
Yesterday, Dr Haass began a series of meetings with the leaders of the political parties outside the Executive, holding talks with the Green Party, UKIP and NI21.
Later in the week, Dr Haass will hear from Victims’ Commissioner Kathryn Stone and the Victims’ Forum. The diplomat said that he expected to be in a better position on Friday afternoon to give an overview of where the process stands.
Asked about the pessimism which many have expressed about the talks process, Dr Haass said: “Whenever you’re doing a negotiation the mood changes at times — sometimes it’s pessimistic, sometimes it’s optimistic.
“Rarely does the change in the temperament or the mood have much to do with the reality, so I don’t worry about those things. I don’t carry a thermometer with me to calculate the mood. It’s also just way too soon to be taking the temperature.”
He added that “we’re still in the phase of what I would call mostly listening and learning... there’s a point at which one starts to pivot and that will happen really on my next visit in November and December and that’s obviously when we’re working with the leadership of the five parties to try and come to some common language about the pressing issues that brought about this entire exercise”.
NI21 leader Basil McCrea, who met Dr Haass yesterday, said that the diplomat had given little away but “was very focussed, very engaged and had a very good line of questioning”. He said that Dr Haass was “more interested in the political pressures — why are people doing what they are doing?”.
The Lagan Valley MLA said that his party had told the diplomat that rather than some sort of truth and reconciliation process, NI21 believed that he should “draw a line under it”.
UKIP’s Northern Ireland leader, David McNarry, who met Dr Haass yesterday, told the diplomat he wanted to see the Union Flag reinstated year-round on Belfast City Hall, the Drumcree and Ligioniel Orangemen allowed to complete their marches and a “working definition of a victim”. He added: “I emphasised that unless these three issues were resolved, prior to discussion by the Northern Ireland Executive panel parties, the Haass mission was on quicksand.”