Peace process gains in Northern Ireland cannot be taken for granted and much work is needed to address the unresolved issues facing the region, a former US diplomat said as he arrived in Belfast to chair a new political talks initiative.
Dr Richard Haass has begun the first round of negotiations aimed at resolving three of the most divisive problems facing the power sharing institutions at Stormont.
Supported by US foreign affairs expert Dr Meghan O’Sullivan, he is attempting to find consensus on the contentious matters of flags and emblems; parades; and dealing with the legacy of the past.
The ex-White House special envoy acknowledged that a troubled summer in Northern Ireland, when simmering community tensions boiled over into street disorder on a number of occasions, was indicative of the urgency around finding an agreed way forward.
“There’s been tremendous progress but, that said, there is still a real need to move things forward and that is again why we are here,” he said.
“I think this last summer was something of an indication or something of a warning that one should not take the improvements for granted.
“One has to embed it and one has also to broaden it and there’s obviously unresolved issues and unresolved tensions or again you wouldn’t have had the violence you had this summer and you wouldn’t have had these lingering and persistent political differences and I think the five parties recognise that.”
Dr Haass jetted into Belfast from New York to begin meeting political representatives from the five Stormont Executive parties.
He will meet with them individually in the coming days before holding plenary talks at the end of the week.
Dr Haass will also meet senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties during a week-long series of engagements.
Another round of negotiations is expected next month with further substantive talks in November ahead of the December deadline for recommendations.