Richard Haass has insisted there is a real chance of achieving meaningful progress in the talks which he is chairing.
The former White House envoy said that consultations this week with Stormont’s main parties and the British and Irish governments had made him optimistic.
Dr Haass has been tasked with finding resolution to long-standing disputes on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. He has been on a number of fact-finding missions to Belfast but has signalled an intent to begin negotiations in earnest when he returns.
As well as consulting with politicians, Dr Haass and his team have met with between 50 and 60 interest groups in Northern Ireland and have received around 400 submissions to an online consultation
He said the process would now focus in on face-to-face talks involving the five parties that make up Stormont’s power-sharing coalition, adding: “We will increasingly be trying to uncover and expand areas of agreement in the three areas that we are looking at.
“So essentially, if you will, the talks will enter a new phase starting in two weeks when we return, and it will, if you will, become much more a negotiating phase rather than simply a consultative phase.”
SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood said that “the greatest authority on how to move our society forward is outside the talks room”. He called on the parties with “low ambitions” to “join the rest of us who have high ambitions; partial fixes are not what we need”.