Richard Haass: Inter-party talks agenda 'limited but ambitious'

US diplomat Richard Haass spoke to media ahead of the talks process

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The man chairing inter-party talks designed to resolve issues over parades, flags and Northern Ireland's past, has said he has a "limited but ambitious" agenda.

Dr Richard Haass arrived in Belfast on Tuesday to begin the talks.

He said there had been real progress in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement, but "there is still a real need to move things forward".

The five Stormont executive parties will be represented at the talks.

The talks are expected to conclude by the end of the year.

Dr Haass was speaking at a press conference before he held his first meetings with the parties.

The US diplomat said he hoped "to make measureable progress in all three areas", but added that the parties had to make their own compromises.

"We will do our best to come up with compromises but at the end of the day no outsider can substitute for the willingness and the ability of the insiders to sign on, to put it bluntly, and to sell it to the people they represent," he said.

"One of the things I've learned over the years working in various negotiations is that often the single most important factor is not necessarily the detail of this or that formula but rather the willingness and ability of the leadership and respective sides in an issue to be willing to make compromises, and be in a position, to be sufficiently strong, to make the case for those compromises with their own respective constituencies. I think that's as true here as it is anywhere.

'Commitment'

"The fact that this process was created by the leadership in Northern Ireland suggests to me there is will.

"I have yet to meet politicians who create political processes that will ask them to confront difficult decisions unless there is a degree of will.

Richard Haass is not representing the US government but he goes about his job with the same cool professionalism as when he was Washington's envoy.

The politicians headed up for their talks in one of the Belfast Europa's hotel lifts.

Just beside the lift doors a blue plaque commemorates President Clinton's historic overnight stay in 1995.

It feels like a throwback to the days when outsiders were vital to brokering peace. Now the question is: can Richard Haass deliver a Christmas compromise?

"I begin from the supposition that we wouldn't be here unless there was a mixture of concern, but also commitment to accomplish things.

"The goal is to come up with, before year's end, a consensus document that ideally would be both broad and deep, dealing with these three sets of issues."

Dr Haass said that often the progress made in Northern Ireland has been forgotten.

"Here we are 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and there has been I believe meaningful progress across the board, and I think it is something that often goes unsaid, but it ought not to - this has now become the new normal.

'Ambitious but possible'

"There are obviously unresolved issues and unresolved tensions or you wouldn't have had the violence you have had this summer or you wouldn't have had these lingering and persistent political differences."

Dr Haass admitted that the proposal to chair the talks had been a surprise.

"When the proposal came it was a surprise, it did come out of the blue, I wasn't expecting it.

"The fact that the calendar was set, that it's not an open-ended process, that it is to be done before year's end, made it possible.

"It's ambitious but possible and I think that's an important focus."

It is a decade since Dr Haass was last formally involved in Northern Ireland as President Bush's special envoy.

On this occasion, he will be assisted by Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan, who served as a senior US diplomat in Iraq, and Charles Landow, an official at Dr Haass's New York think tank.

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