Former US peace envoy Richard Haass has returned to the north of Ireland to constitute a new discussion group on parades and flags from the main parties at the Stormont Assembly.
Dr Haass will meet political leaders and the Orange Order to agree the work plan and terms of reference for the talks, which are scheduled to begin in September.
Haass will be assisted in his role by former US government adviser Dr Megan O’Sullivan and international researcher Charles Landow.
He stressed the role of dialogue and healthy debate in resolving outstanding contentious issues.
“This has got to be done politically and within the parameters of legitimate political discourse,” he said.
“Disagreements are fine, disagreements are to be expected, but again disagreements are to be dealt with verbally and done within a legitimate and accepted political process.”
Dr Haass acknowledged his task was challenging but said he was optimistic.
“We have got an ambitious mandate... we will do everything possible and I am confident that we can meet that mandate.”
He also welcomed a statement by the Orange Order that it would “willingly and actively participate” with his all-party group.
The US diplomat described the statement as “very good news indeed”.
Dr Haass stressed the primacy of “legitimate political discourse”. During his brief visit, the peace envoy said his group aims to deliver a report before the end of the year.
Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP, the largest unionist party in the North, claimed Dr Haass’s group could provide an “alternative” to the Parades Commission.
During a visit to the Short Strand this week, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said he was “disappointed” with the approach of unionists to the riots, accusing the DUP of jumping “into bed with the Orange Order”.
“For me that’s the most disappointing aspect of all of this. It appeared to me that in terms of representing unionism the Orange Order was in the driving seat and not the politicians and on that issue I think they made a huge mistake,” he said.
He also criticised Orange Order Chaplain Mervyn Gibson.
“If the pro-British unionist tradition in the north of Ireland is being led by the Rev Mervyn Gibson God help all of us,” he said. “I mean that very, very sincerely indeed.”
Last Friday, Orange leaders called for the abolition of the Parades Commission, which currently adjudicates on sectarian parades. They expressly linked the violence to the Belfast City Council Union flag dispute, which saw months of loyalist disturbances over a decision by the council to reduce the flying of the British flag over the building.
“I believe the flag protesters did this generation a great service by waking us from our slumber,” said Rev Gibson last week.
“Apathy, pessimism and defeatism were walking us into a united Ireland.
“Rather than waking up to fight each other, we need to concentrate yet again on defeating republicanism, this time in the certain cultural war.
“Let this generation not be found wanting. Do not fight the war on yesterday’s battle-field. Fight the war on today’s battleground as we unite to get rid of the Parades Commission.”
At another Twelfth event, ‘Grand Master’ of Belfast George Chittick expressed contempt for the nationalist residents’ groups aligned with Sinn Fein who continue to oppose sectarian parades.
“Sinn Fein-inspired community groups are feeding off our carcass, our culture, just like vultures,” he said. “We have to get rid of the Parades Commission.
“Are you willing to take the step on behalf of your Protestant heritage?” he asked. “That’s the question you have to answer. My answer is: No surrender.”