Talks on flags, sectarian parades and the past in the North will continue this weekend but are facing increased scepticism after the process was announced to have ended in failure on Christmas Eve.
The talks have taken place over the past three months involving all five of the Stormont political parties, and are being mediated by US envoy Richard Haass and his colleague, Meghan O’Sullivan.
Mr Haass is returning to Belfast this Saturday and is likely to hold separate talks with representatives of the five main political parties before another full round-table negotiations on a fresh draft of proposals.
Before Christmas, all sides had reported that the parties were “tantalisingly close” to a deal. Although the talks ‘collapsed’ on Christmas Eve as Haass and O’Sullivan flew back to the USA, few believed the process would not continue, and a deadline of the end of January is now being mooted.
The issue of flags remains the largest stumbling block to agreement, but details of the process remain scant. Despite the slow progress -- Mr Haass said “significant differences and divisions” remained on all three issues -- the US negotiator remained upbeat.
“The work done on flags is quite disappointing by any measure,” he added. “But the other two areas have been, I believe, quite impressive and I believe it would be a real shame not to be able to turn that work into a reality.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said a resolution was possible. He said: “There is a duty and responsibility on all the parties to these negotiations, despite the challenges, to find a way forward. With a fair wind the proposals under consideration can do this and I would appeal to everyone to overcome any difficulties which may remain.”
For the second time in this process, the DUP has said it will refuse to engage in talks on Sunday, leaving only Saturday and Monday available for negotiators.
Mr Adams said: “Many people will be disappointed that the all-party talks broke up without agreement for Christmas. Sinn Fein shares that disappointment.
“However, it is our view that progress was made and that agreement is possible when the talks recommence.”
A negotiator for the nationalist SDLP, Alex Attwood, called for the British government to play a greater role in bringing the talks to a successful conclusion.
“If it comes to issues of financing -- and there are issues of financing on the far side of this -- they need to be very heavily involved and likewise with the issue of dealing with the past,” Mr Attwood said.
But one Ulster Unionist representative told a crowd of loyalists last weekend that US diplomat Richard Haass should “go home”. East Belfast assembly member Michael Copeland made his comments as he spoke to a small crowd close to an Orange parade protest camp on Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue.
Flanked on the platform at Saturday’s rally by UVF political representative Billy Hutchinson and senior Belfast Orangeman Belfast William Mawhinney, the former British UDR soldier said the US diplomat should “go home and leave us who live here to mend our ways”.