By Steven McCaffery
NORTHERN Ireland political leaders are to hold at least two sets of intensive negotiations this month as part of a new push for agreement on parades, flags and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
The Irish and British governments are backing the talks that will be led by the Stormont parties, with details now being finalised on how the negotiations will be conducted.
But parties have already agreed to put administrative staff and legal advisers in place, as they finalise plans for two sets of three-day long negotiations.
The Irish government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who is in Belfast today meeting the main parties, said: “There is a wish to get agreement.
“There are differences and challenges…but I think there is a willingness to try, and an acceptance that there is a window of opportunity.”
US diplomats Richard Haass and Megan O’Sullivan were brought to Northern Ireland last summer to lead negotiations on contentious issues that threatened the political institutions born out of the peace process.
Those intense talks failed to reach agreement by their New Year’s Eve deadline, but made progress on how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, plus ongoing disputes over parades, and a commission to review divisions over flags and symbols.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP have been supportive of the proposed package, but unionists including the DUP said more work is required.
The UUP has called for a “decoupling” of parades from the other issues under discussion.
The DUP has adopted similar language, but nationalists have called for a comprehensive deal, which has fuelled claims that an agreement in the short term may be difficult.
But the decision to hold what have been described as “accelerated talks”, has put the contentious issues back in the spotlight.
The talks will now take place before the arrival of the main marching season.
The initial negotiations chaired by Dr Haass and Professor O’Sulivan were part of a wider effort to stabilise the peace process after months of street violence by loyalists opposed to restrictions placed on flying the Union flag at Belfast city hall.
As was reported for the first time on The Detail, the US administration also showed signs that it was alarmed at the dangers posed to the political framework that was painstakingly put in place with American support since the 1990s.
US Vice President Joe Biden took on special responsibility for monitoring the peace process and the renewed US role is seen as a significant factor behind the scenes in the latest efforts to bolster the peace process.
The vice president’s new role was reflected in some of the political choreography of recent weeks.
An article written by Prime Minister David Cameron for the Belfast Telegraph was followed by a comment on Twitter by Vice President Biden endorsing the call for political progress in Northern Ireland. This came as the British and Irish governments held fresh public meetings through the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
While Richard Haass is not expected to take part in these latest negotiations, he has remained in contact with the two governments, and with the US administration.
In a separate development, there have been recent media reports that the Conservative Party is courting the support of the DUP at Westminster, where unionist votes could become crucial around next year’s General Election.
This has sparked speculation among nationalist parties that this may or may not become a factor around renewed talks.
But both the British and Irish governments have publicly endorsed the need for accommodation on the contentious issues under discussion and committed themselves to fostering agreement.
Mr Gilmore said the two governments “are on the one page”.
The Haass/O’Sullivan talks involved the five main parties and saw a number of proposals on dealing with the past, flags/emblems, and parades:
:: On the past, there were proposals for the creation of a Historical Investigations Unit that would take over the probes into killings from the Troubles currently being undertaken by the police and police ombudsman. An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval could allow victims and survivors to access information on how loved ones died, with a proposal for limited immunity for those providing information.
:: Two new organisations were proposed to replace the existing Parades Commission , with an Office for Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests to receive information on planned events and to promote dialogue, while an Authority for Public Events Adjudication would effectively rule on contentious events. A new code of conduct enshrined in law was also proposed.
:: The stumbling blocks of flags and emblems would be passed to a Commission on Identity, Culture, and Tradition, which would also consider a range of other issues such as language rights and a Bill of Rights. It would make recommendations to the First Minister and deputy First Minister.