There was dismay from unionist Haass negotiators last night after a proposal from the US diplomat that a licence would be required to fly the Union Flag in a public place.
The suggestion, which came as Dr Haass’s self-imposed deadline for reaching a deal on flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles looked certain to be missed, has thrown into doubt a second final draft deal put to the parties last night.
The move appears to be an attempt to end the proliferation of Union Flags, tricolours and paramilitary flags. But the requirement for permission to fly the national flag will not sit easily with many unionists.
Earlier in the week another draft — which among other things suggested the flying of the Irish tricolour during visits to Northern Ireland by the Irish president — was withdrawn by Dr Haass after it provoked unionist anger.
Negotiators had originally hoped to end the process last night but it is understood that face-to-face negotiations — the first of the entire three- month process — will not even begin until 3pm today and may be pushed back even further if more redrafting of the proposed deal is required.
Although Dr Haass has attempted to maintain confidentiality about the talks, details have been leaking out all week.
Last night a source close to the process told the News Letter that from a unionist perspective “we have gone backwards from the draft earlier in the week”.
He said: “There are proposals to link flags and parades and people might even be required to have a licence to put a flag up in a public place,” adding that he was “shocked” at the flag licence suggestion.
It is understood that the document also deals with ‘symbols’ inside council chambers, which could see reviews of memorabilia such as images of the Royal Family or Union Flags within council chambers.
And the proposals on an appeal mechanism against the decisions of the body set up to replace the Parades Commission are understood to have been diluted considerably.
However, some are still optimistic that at least a limited agreement can be found, with one person familiar with the draft document saying that “there is a reasonable chance” of agreement in two of the three areas under discussion.
He said: “We thought flags and parades were being treated as separate issues but now they are being brought together and then there’s this proposal you would need a licence to fly a flag.”
There were rumours last night that at least some of those who will decide on contentious parades would be appointed by Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin — who protested against Orange parades during the summer — and the Alliance Justice Minister, David Ford.
An appeal mechanism to a separate parading body appears to have been scrapped.
Last night DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt separately said that they were unhappy with what had been put to them in the latest document. But the SDLP, which had welcomed the earlier document this week, praised Dr Haass’s latest proposals.
Mr Donaldson, one of the three DUP negotiators, said: “There will have to be further changes made if the document is to be acceptable.”
He added: “There are some silly things in there that need to be taken out.”
Mr Nesbitt said: “There is still a long way to go. Some things have been added in. We want to know why and at whose suggestion. They don’t do anything for the long term benefit of Northern Ireland. However we remain committed to making this work. It may take longer than tomorrow.”
Sinn Fein’s Caral Ni Chuilin said that her party was prepared to wait until Christmas Eve if an agreement could be reached.
SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood said: “If we continue to hear the voices of victims and survivors, if no-one, no party rushes to judgment, if the confidentiality of the talks are honoured, then I think big things can happen in a short space of time, if everybody approaches this process in that way.”