North talks set for late finish

Crunch political talks aimed at resolving outstanding peace process issues in the North are set to go on long into the evening.

Former US diplomat Richard Haass is chairing five-party discussions between politicians in Belfast to try to seal a pre-Christmas agreement on flags, controversial parades, and dealing with a troubled history.

Parties had provisionally been due to meet this morning to discuss what will be a fourth draft of a potential deal, but the timetable has since been pushed back significantly.

It is understood the latest draft written by Dr Haass and talks’ co-chair Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, a US foreign affairs expert, will be presented to the parties mid-afternoon.

A plenary meeting involving all participants is likely to take place this evening, with negotiations set to go on for some time.

Dr Haass has until the end of the year to produce a deal but had signalled a desire to bring things to a conclusion today before flying back to the United States tomorrow for Christmas.

If no agreement is reached, Dr Haass and Dr O’Sullivan have said they will make a judgement call on whether it would be worth flying back to the North on December 27 for another round of talks.

While some progress has been made on long-standing disputes on parades and how to deal with the legacy of the past, a deal on flags looks set to prove elusive.

Serious loyalist violence broke out a year ago after restrictions were imposed on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.

It is likely the Haass process will recommend another forum be set up to examine issues around flags and identity over a longer time period.

The current process could potentially see agreement on the replacement for the Parades Commission to rule on contentious marches by unionists and nationalists and on an organisation to oversee dealing with the past, potentially one offering limited immunity from prosecution to those who co-operate.

The North’s former first minister, Conservative peer David Trimble, today expressed doubt that the talks will end in success.

He warned that, while the North’s politics remained dominated by “outdated” identity issues, it would be difficult for differing factions to find common ground.

“I’m very doubtful whether that will be successful,” he said.

“We’ve had various forms of parades commissions set up over the course of the last 17 years and they have not worked at all, they have not succeeded.”

“There has been a lot of hurt through the Troubles. And once there is a recourse to violence then things become much more difficult to settle down and it takes a long time. And there’s no one simple answer to this.”

On the on-going disputes over identity, he said: “Communities will always have an identity themselves, people will always have a national identity. And the situation in Northern Ireland is where there is a conflict in national identities.

“There is still a communal identity.

“One of the problems is that we still have politics based upon communal identities now; that was inevitable when the issue of national identity, an issue to which state Northern Ireland would belong continued. And it was natural that political identities would align with national identities.”

Trimble added: “If we have solved the national issue, which I think we have, then we are continuing with a political set-up based on outdated ideas and we need to see a way on getting our political process detached from national identity and attached to socio-economic issues, which is the norm elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

“Now that’s not an easy thing to do – we tried to do it in the last election, but we didn’t achieve a breakthrough. I think we have to go back, we have to try to do that again.

“But, you know, in the long run it’s going to need time.”

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