Inside the Haass Talks – Deal or No Deal? – By Brian Rowan

Meghan O'Sullivan and Dr Richard Haass pictured taking a break from the meeting at the Stormont Hotel.

Meghan O’Sullivan and Dr Richard Haass pictured taking a break from the meeting at the Stormont Hotel.

 

Why is Richard Haass here?

There is a simple answer to that question.

He and Meghan O’Sullivan are here because the political parties and the governments have been unable or unwilling to find the answers to the questions under discussion – flags, parades and the past.

So, there is a choice?

To take what is put on the table and do something with it or to retreat back into the comfort of the different political positions and do nothing.

One Talks source told me that  Haass and O’Sullivan are not going to produce a ‘Green’ or an ‘Orange’ document, but rather a paper that challenges everyone.

None of this is easy, and the US Talks team also has a decision to make.

How much drafting and re-drafting to do?

Will more time, more re-working and re-wording get any more done?

We know from the document put before the parties on Monday the frame within which Haass and O’Sullivan are working.

On the past the idea is for a single Historical Investigations Unit with a Director.

There would also be a Director of an Independent Commission looking at the retrieval or recovery of information – the part of the process that would use a type of immunity.

It is not an amnesty DUP negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson stressed and there will be a firewall between Investigation and Information Retrieval.

In other words the road to justice will not be blocked, but we know this route will lead in many cases – indeed in most cases – to a dead end.

Investigations and the courts will deliver little and, so, another way has to be added to the process without removing rights to justice.

Haass and O’Sullivan also have thoughts on acknowledgement and on an archive to record the different narratives or stories of the conflict years.

As the talks continued on Tuesday, the Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone hosted a consultation in another part of the Stormont Hotel, and in that room we saw reminders of the horrors of those conflict years.

Alliance negotiator Naomi Long said on Tuesday: “We owe a huge debt to the victims.”

Ms Stone’s response, addressed to all those involved in these talks, was delivered in a few words: “If the debt is huge – pay it.”

The Commissioner said victims and survivors need choices.

They are there within the Haass/O’Sullivan framework – investigation, information retrieval, acknowledgement and the story-telling archive.

Ms Stone has also been talking about a specific victims pension.

“It’s the victims who have sacrificed most,” she said – “suffered most and who have an important contribution to make to what politicians call a better and a shared future.”

Another Haass/O’Sullivan idea is for a museum – another jigsaw piece in a picture that will only be made if those involved in  these talks really want to see it.

“If the political will is there we can do this in 48 hours,” Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly said – “if it’s not, then we can’t.”

He added: “They are not new issues.”

They’re not, but a new approach is needed and that is the purpose of this Haass/O’Sullivan initiative – to do something different, to provide the scaffolding within which to build.

The parading framework they suggest is set within a Public Events Facilitation body with a seven-member Public Events Authority including a Director and a three-member Appeals tier.

It moves things out of the Northern Ireland Office and towards the Department of Justice, but what does the re-shaping do?

Well it means there won’t be something called the Parades Commission but a process re-named and re-structured within which there is adjudication.

You can change the ways of ruling on these things, but more important is, can you change moods and attitudes on the ground.

“It can’t be about managing divisions,” one source who has read the document told me.

The flags issue is in stalemate.

There is no advance on the designated days when the Union flag would be displayed in Belfast but, controversially, Haass identified stipulated Irish visits when he believes it would be appropriate to fly the tricolour at Parliament Buildings.

Having read all three sections of the composite paper on Monday, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt quoted Thatcher’s out, out, out speech and said we were a long way from in, in, in.

So, the US team is re-drafting, but it is time for something that should represent their final paper.

These aren’t new issues, but much of what we have heard in response this week is the broken record of ‘I want’ and ‘we want’.

That doesn’t work.

SDLP negotiator Alex Attwood said this week his party was working to the Haass timeline of close of play on Thursday.

There is a suggestion of a contingency for more talking on December 27, 28, 29 and 30 – but would that change anything?

The Haass team will decide on that and then there is a call to be made.

This process doesn’t just need a document and proposals, it demands political will and leadership – and it is time to do something.

 

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About Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist-of-the-Year awards. He was BBC security editor in Belfast and now contributes regularly to the Belfast Telegraph and UTV. Rowan has reported on the major pre-ceasefire and then peace process events. He is the author of four books.