UK & World News

  • 30 December 2013, 5:42

Northern Ireland Talks Resume As Deadline Looms

Northern Ireland's main political parties are making one final push to resolve three contentious issues which have long hampered the peace process.

The talks chairman, US diplomat Richard Haass, has set a deadline of noon on Monday for agreement on flags, parades and the legacy of the past.

He and his vice chair Meghan O'Sullivan - America's former deputy national security advisor on Iraq and Afghanistan - returned to Belfast on Saturday.

The talks were suspended in the early hours of Christmas Eve, but Dr Haass says the proposals on the table are "extraordinarily close" to gaining support.

He said: "At some point we have got to fish or cut bait, that time has come."

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said: "I'm sure all of us here in Northern Ireland wish the parties well in the final hours of the Haass process. I hope all sides will be able to show flexibility to make an agreement possible on these divisive issues.

"From my many conversations on this over recent days, I am encouraged about the prospects for agreement, although some key issues are yet to be resolved, particularly on the past."

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness invited Dr Haass after weeks of unrest over flags and marches.

There were serious disturbances last December and January when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the Union flag is flown on City Hall.

Rioting flared during the summer marching season too when the Parades Commission prohibited an Orange Order return march at Ardoyne in north Belfast.

Agreement on when flags should be flown has proven most elusive and the parties may decide to defer that issue to another process after the next election.

They are said to be close to consensus on a new body for adjudicating where and when the loyal orders and republican groups are permitted to hold marches.

There is speculation that the bereaved and injured from The Troubles may be given a choice between continuing to pursue convictions or obtaining more information.

Some victims are concerned that the choice to obtain more information may come with some degree of immunity for those who provide details about their case.

The marathon session of talks will end six months of effort. Drs Haass and O'Sullivan have other projects and cannot return in January.

Fifteen years after The Good Friday Agreement, they are hopeful parties will find enough common ground to write the final chapter and turn peace on paper into peace in practice.

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