A former US diplomat trying to resolve outstanding peace process issues in Northern Ireland has expressed optimism that a mood for compromise is emerging.
Ex-White House envoy to the region Dr Richard Haass made the positive assessment as he arrived in Belfast for a second round of talks aimed at forging agreement on three of the most long-standing disputes facing the power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Dr Haass, who has been tasked to find a way forward on the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past, said he sensed people were ready to move on.
“Northern Ireland has a special set of challenges because it has had a special history and that will always be part of its legacy,” he said.
“On the other hand you do want to get to the point where things are, if you will, normal here. And that’s what a lot of the submissions reflect. The people, I believe, are ready for that. There’s been an awful lot of progress. There’s more progress to be made.
“There’s also some concern about some things that threaten the progress. From my own sense - from the bulk of the submissions - is that people, the vast majority of the people, they are ready for compromise, are ready for progress, are ready to move on.”
Dr Haass is the current president of US think-tank the Council for Foreign Relations and was envoy to Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2003 under George W Bush’s presidency.
Last month he held more than 30 engagements with politicians from the five Executive parties - which are all taking part in the cross party talks process - senior clergy, the Orange Order and business leaders.
He started his second visit by holding meetings with some of the smaller parties in Northern Ireland that are not represented at the Executive table.
Dr Haass, who has an end of the year deadline to produce a set of recommendations, will travel to London to meet with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and will be in Dublin on Thursday to hold talks with Irish government representatives.
The talks chairman has already briefed Prime Minister David Cameron on a recent visit to London.
On Friday he will meet Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone and hold a plenary session with the political parties’ talks delegates.
While he is being supported in his work by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, she has not accompanied him on the latest trip across the Atlantic.
Dr Haass said he was still in the “listening and learning” phase of his work, indicating that the process would move toward formulating potential solutions in November and December.
“While you hopefully never stop listening and learning there is a point at which one starts to pivot and that will happen on my next visit in November and December, and that’s obviously when we are then working with the leadership of the five parties to try to come to some common language.”
The Haass talks are being billed as the most important since the 2010 Hillsborough negotiations when responsibilities for policing and justice were devolved to the Stormont Executive.
They follow one of the most difficult summers in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Loyalist tensions over flags and parades sparked mass protests, some of which boiled over into violence on the streets, while republicans have been heavily criticised by victims campaigners for holding a number of IRA commemorations.
At the Executive, political relations between the two largest parties - the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein - have also been strained - exemplified by a DUP decision in the late summer to withdraw its support for a controversial peace centre on the site of the former paramilitary prison at the Maze in Co Antrim.
Meanwhile, the threat from dissident republican terror groups opposed to the peace process continues to remain severe, with repeated attempts to target members of the police.