Failure to reach Northern Ireland deal ‘disappointing’

Posted By: December 31, 2013

Gerry Moriarty, Kilian Doyle
Irish Times ( Dublin). Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 13:42
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British prime minister David Cameron have described the failure of Northern Ireland’s political parties to reach agreement on issues surrounding the past, parades and flags as “disappointing”.

US diplomat Dr Richard Haass and his colleague Professor Meghan O’Sullivan were returning to the United States today after marathon talks resulted in a failure to achieve consensus.

Earlier this morning, Dr Haass presented the five Northern Executive parties, who had been in talks since yesterday morning, with a seventh and final paper on how to deal with the past, parades and flags. But at 5.35am, it was formally confirmed there would be no agreement.

Dr Haass urged First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to publish the document. He believed it would command “considerable public support” and ultimately be a “foundation stone” for an agreement.

He called on the parties to establish a working group to address outstanding problems which are mainly over parading and the past. He also made clear that while he and Dr O’Sullivan at some future stage might return to assist the parties sign off on a deal, they were now detaching themselves from the process.

“Success should not be measured by what we report to you tonight or what the party leaders report tonight – I would ask you to judge the success in six months, in a year, 18 months, in two years, that would give a much more realistic definition or yardstick of what constitutes success,” he said. “What I believe what we have done is laid down solid enough foundations stones.”

Sinn Féin endorsed the 40-page paper while the SDLP anticipated the party would give it “general endorsement”.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said that the party was disappointed in certain areas but its negotiating team would recommend acceptance of the document.

“Sinn Féin have a track record in negotiations of making agreements and honouring them. Tonight is a significant step forward. It is important that all of the parties and the two governments honour what has been agreed,” he said.

However the DUP, whose support probably would have ensured overall if qualified acceptance of the document, said that the paper needed “further refinement”.

The DUP’s chief negotiator, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, said progress was made but a final deal could not be struck. He said the “broad architecture” of Dr Haass’s paper contained “much merit” but some of the language and detail “was not what we would have chosen and in some instances we profoundly disapprove of the language”.

“We entered this process to come to the right deal, to get the right deal for the people of Northern Ireland, but not any deal,” Mr Donaldson said in a 6.30am press conference.

“We do not have agreement but we are committed to continuing this work beyond now in dialogue with others to try and resolve the outstanding issues that need to be addressed,” he added.

The Ulster Unionist Party, which also expressed misgivings about elements of the proposals, decided to reserve judgment until the paper is presented to its 120-member executive in the coming days. Alliance had concerns over the proposal relating to parades and flags but was generally supportive of the methodology for addressing the past.

Dr Haass and Dr O’Sullivan attempted to put a positive gloss on the result of the process which began last July when they were invited by Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to help the parties reach agreement on these so far intractable problems.

Dr Haass said a final agreement was “not there” but there had been “significant” progress. ”All the parties support significant parts of the agreement. At the same time, all have some concerns.”

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said his party would be relentless in building on the strengths of the document and “remedying” where it was less strong. “A general endorsement from my party will send out a strong and clear message that much good work has been done through Haass and that the SDLP is determined to build on and deepen that work into the future,” he added.

Alliance leader David Ford said: “While certain parts of this agreement will be welcomed by the public, other areas fall far short of what should have been achieved. This is certainly not the comprehensive agreement that we entered these talks to achieve.”

Mr Kenny said the outcome was a disappointment not only to him, but to the people of Northern Ireland. “It should be said that significant effort went into the talks. I hope that the period ahead can be used to build on that effort, and provide a basis for a future agreement,” he said. “I urge all the political parties in Northern Ireland to reflect on the progress that had been achieved.

“The Irish Government stands ready to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the British Government, to support further efforts to achieve greater peace and build a united community in Northern Ireland.”

In a statement this morning, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said he too was disappointed that agreement was not reached. “This is not a step back but rather a step not yet taken. That step forward will have to be taken because it is right and necessary and because people across society are demanding it,” he said. “I recognise that significant progress has been made over a short period on the most difficult and contentious issues that face society in Northern Ireland. The progress that has been made must now be safeguarded and built upon.”

Mr Cameron also said the failure to achieve a breakthrough was disappointing, but urged the parties to “keep going” in the process.

“Although it is disappointing the parties have not been able to reach full agreement at this stage, these talks have achieved much common ground, providing a basis for continuing discussions,” he said. “There is a shared commitment to making progress on these very difficult issues that continue to be a focus for tension and division across the community.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the failure to reach a comprehensive agreement should not be seen as the end of the road in seeking to find a way forward on difficult and divisive issues. Significant progress has been made and it is important to build on this and continue to seek agreement in areas that continue to be a focus for tension and division within society.

“I welcome the suggestion by Dr Haass that the parties should now lose no time in getting together to see how they can most constructively take things forward,” she said. “ I would encourage them to maintain the momentum that their efforts, working with the Haass team, has created. For our part, the UK Government will look at how we can best facilitate this.”

Having been given an end-of-year deadline to report, Dr Haass had aimed to strike a deal before Christmas but had to return to the US on Christmas Eve empty-handed after a marathon session of all-night negotiations last week. Cutting short his seasonal break, he returned to the region on Saturday in a last-ditch bid to secure agreement.

Dr Haass is the president of US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York, and was US president George W Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003.