Peace process gains in Northern Ireland cannot be taken for granted and much work is needed to address the unresolved issues, a former US diplomat said as he arrived in Belfast to chair new political talks yesterday.
Dr Richard Haass has begun the first round of negotiations aimed at resolving three of the most divisive problems facing Stormont.
Supported by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, he is attempting to find consensus on the contentious matters of flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the legacy of the past.
The ex-White House special envoy acknowledged that a troubled summer in Northern Ireland, when simmering community tensions boiled over into street disorder on a number of occasions, was indicative of the urgency around finding an agreed way forward.
“There’s been tremendous progress but, that said, there is still a real need to move things forward and that is again why we are here,” he said.
“I think this last summer was something of an indication or something of a warning that one should not take the improvements for granted.
“One has to embed it and one has also to broaden it and there’s obviously unresolved issues and unresolved tensions or again you wouldn’t have had the violence you had this summer and you wouldn’t have had these lingering and persistent political differences and I think the five parties recognise that.”
Dr Haass jetted into Belfast from New York to begin meeting political representatives from the five Stormont Executive parties.
He will meet with them individually in the coming days before holding plenary talks at the end of the week.
Dr Haass will also meet senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties during a week-long series of engagements.
Another round of negotiations is expected next month with further substantive talks in November ahead of the December deadline for recommendations.
Yesterday the UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, raised an issue surrounding what many see as the most challenging strand of the talks: the past.
Last month Mr Nesbitt wrote to the main party leaders in the Republic asking them whether they agreed with Sinn Fein that Provisional IRA members were among “Ireland’s patriot dead”.
Yesterday, having received their responses, he said that they were “in denial” about the issue.
Mr Nesbitt said: “There is nothing patriotic about no warning bombs, or shooting people in the back of the head, or targeting women and children for death and serious injury.”
He added: “I am saddened to say none has addressed the question. Enda Kenny TD, as Taoiseach, says it is not ‘government practice to comment on particular comments by political parties in Northern Ireland’.
“Eamon Gilmore TD, as Labour leader, at least mentioned the ‘patriot dead’ phrase, in the context of his party avoiding the use of such terms.
“While Micheál Martin TD for Fianna Fáil totally ignored the question.”
Meanwhile, in an open letter published in today’s News Letter, the leaders of the Province’s main churches appeal for political leaders to “to seek the common good” during the talks.
The Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist leaders added: “We believe that there is hope. Our country has come a long way in 20 years. There are relationships at political, church and community level that would have been unimaginable in 1993.”
The first party to meet Dr Haass at Belfast’s Europa Hotel was Sinn Fein, with SDLP representatives following later. Unionists are due to meet Dr Haass, president of the Council for Foreign Relations, in the coming days.