Proposals to resolve contentious issues in Northern Ireland would leave people considerably better off, former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass has said.
Dr Haass chaired five-party negotiations about parades, flags and the toxic legacy of the region’s 30-year conflict. Talks ended on New Year’s Eve with no agreement. The parties are still deciding whether to accept the proposals – and unionists have major concerns.
The former Northern Ireland special envoy was enlisted by the power-sharing administration at Stormont to help resolve problems which have caused serious sectarian violence.
Dr Haass said: “The draft agreement ... would leave the people of Northern Ireland considerably better off than they are today by tackling the difficult issues that continue to divide society.”
He and vice-chair Dr Meghan O’Sullivan published a two-page summary of their plans.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said they should be implemented as they stood.
The summary said: “The panel (of parties) worked to produce a substantive accord that would help Northern Ireland meet some of its most vexing challenges; do so in a way that reduced sectarianism and promoted reconciliation and a shared future and be acceptable to all five parties of the Executive.
“As a five-party document, the proposed agreement necessarily required compromise on some preferences, but not core principles, by all involved.
“To reach an agreement that would win the approval of all, no party could achieve all it wanted and not all issues could be addressed.”
Unionists have expressed reservations about the proposed text, although Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson denied the process had been a failure.
Dr Haass said it sought to build on the success of previous peace pacts by advancing unfinished work.
“(It) is a product of work informed by a sense of urgency, given the tension and violence of the past year and the need to contend with the past before the passage of time makes this even more difficult,” he added.
He said it required resources and support for implementation in Northern Ireland and Westminster.
Mr McGuinness urged other political leaders to show leadership as the Ulster Unionist Party meets to discuss the Haass plans.
“Richard Haass has delivered his final text. This is the time we need political leadership,” he said.
“The only purpose in establishing an all-party working group is to ensure the implementation of the document as it stands, not to reopen negotiations on its contents.”
The Haass process was established in July to deal with what have become three of the primary obstacles to meaningful reconciliation.
Tensions over contentious parades regularly erupt into street violence while disputes over the flying of flags – on public buildings and in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods – cause community conflict.
Arguably the most complex issue has been how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of a 30-year-conflict, with opposing sides retaining competing narratives of what happened and victims demanding truth and justice after more than 3,000 unsolved murders.
The document instead envisaged the setting up of the Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition to examine the flags problem over a longer time frame - potentially 18 months.
Dr Haass recommended the replacement of the UK Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new devolved mechanism for adjudicating on contentious events.
This would consist of an administrative arm – the Office of Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests – to deal with applications to march and protest and potentially facilitate mediation between groups.
It would also see the creation of the Authority for Public Events and Adjudication – an independent regulatory body, chaired by a legal figure, which would deliberate on applications for unresolvable parading disputes.
Like the Parades Commission, it would have seven independent members, but the new authority would also provide more scope for appealing against decisions.
Detail around Dr Haass’s proposal for a code of conduct for participants in parades and protests are understood to be one of the issues causing unionists concern, amid fears too much of the onus of responsibility will be borne by the Protestant loyal orders.
The document proposes a new Historical Investigations Unit to take on the investigatory responsibilities of the police’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman’s office.
The draft deal proposes the creation of an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) for victims seeking the truth about what happened to loved ones.
This would encourage those involved in killings to provide details with the assurance that their revelations could not be used against them in a court of law.
Controversially, the draft also bestows the ICIR with responsibility for assessing wider themes and patterns in the conflict – such as alleged state collusion with paramilitaries or alleged paramilitary ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted around the Irish border.
The proposals on the past also advocate improvement of services for victims, including mental health treatment, and the creation of a Troubles historical archive.
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