The North’s political leaders have published a draft agreement on outstanding peace process issues only hours after Executive parties failed to reach consensus on the proposals.
The stalled blueprint for dealing with divisive problems around flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles was drawn up by former US diplomat Richard Haass, who chaired a six-month five-party talks process that ended at 5am this morning without a settlement.
Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who had commissioned the one-time White House special envoy to oversee the negotiations, put the document on the website of their joint office so people could assess the plans for themselves.
While Dr Haass did not meet his end-of-year deadline to achieve consensus on the long running disputes, his draft agreement could yet form the basis for a deal.
The two nationalist parties – Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – have signalled a willingness to back his proposals.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists have acknowledged progress has been made and have pledged to take the document back for consultation with their respective party executives, but both have expressed major concerns about details of the paper as it stands.
The cross-community Alliance Party said it would endorse the document’s proposals on the past, but rejected the suggested resolutions on flags and parades in their current form.
The parties are now set to establish a Stormont working group to try and finally reach an accommodation in 2014.
But without the direction of such an experienced independent chair and with elections looming in May, some fear the window of opportunity may have passed.
Before flying home to the United States, Dr Haass had urged Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to publish the document.
“We believe that when this happens it will receive and enjoy considerable public support and it will help contribute to an already robust debate that is taking place in Northern Ireland about its past, its present and its future,” he said early this morning.