The Alliance Party has denied claims that its negative response to the final draft of the Haass agreement led to the process collapsing.
On Tuesday night, hours after the talks broke up, UUP negotiator Jeff Dudgeon blamed Alliance for the process failing.
And yesterday one source close to the talks told the News Letter that Alliance was the only party to openly reject the deal on offer (although the unionist parties were not committing to recommend the agreement to their members), something which it is claimed had a visible impact on Richard Haass.
However, Alliance denied that its position had been crucial to a deal failing.
And another member of the talks team who is not a member of the Alliance Party said that was not their recollection of the situation, adding that Alliance had not been particularly influential in the final stages of the process.
It is understood that about half an hour from the end of the process at 5am in the Stormont Hotel, Dr Haass wanted a secret ballot of whether each party would support or reject the proposed deal, with replies put in envelopes and handed to him.
However, in the end the parties gave their views audibly, in order of their size. It is understood that the DUP and UUP reserved judgment on what was on offer, Sinn Fein supported the agreement in principle subject to its excecutive’s approval and the SDLP, while less decisive, was broadly supportive. However, it is claimed that when it came the turn of Alliance, deputy leader Naomi Long made clear her opposition to the sections on flags and parading, throwing the process into turmoil.
Although Alliance’s support would not have been crucial to achieving a deal had the other parties supported it, the source said that Dr Haass seemed dismayed that even the party most likely to support a deal had severe reservations.
“Nobody thought Alliance would reject what was on offer,” the individual said, adding that a “visibly shocked” Dr Haass asked for a ‘time out’ during which it is believed pressure was put on Alliance to change its position.
The source added: “The momentum has now gone and over the next few days people are going to find horrors in that document.”
But late on Tuesday night the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, said that “we must not lose the momentum and we each should take care that areas of agreement are not allowed to unravel”.
The First Minister said: “I do not recognise as accurate reports of ‘talks failure’ given the wide gulf that existed on the Haass team’s arrival and the broad areas of agreement on their departure.”
He added: “I will recommend to my party colleagues that they support the suggestion made by Dr Haass that a ‘working group’ be established to see how agreed elements can be taken forward while seeking to resolve areas where disagreement remains.”
MLA says claim is ‘nonsense’
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, part of his party’s Haass negotiating team, last night dismissed the claim as “nonsense and ill-intentioned”.
He said that both the UUP and DUP had “declined to respond to the document” but Alliance had given “our honest assessment that significant progress has been made, particularly on the past”.
The East Belfast MLA added: “Some progress has also been made on parades and protests but the important issue of flags and emblems has been pushed into another process by parties and the UUP and DUP refused to even discuss reasonable and publicly supported proposals submitted by Alliance on the display of unofficial and illegal flags and emblems.
“The challenge now is for all parties and the public to work together to achieve timely implementation and further progress on all three issues, which is vital to the social and economic well-being of everyone in our community.”