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'Fresh focus needed on Haass outline'

Published 08/02/2014

FIVE weeks after the Haass talks ended without agreement Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness last night called for a "refocus" on the US diplomat's proposals for resolving the north's most contentious issues.

Speaking at the party's ard fheis in Wexford, the deputy first minister urged Stormont's parties to "grasp the opportunity" presented by the former special envoy's recommendations for tackling flags, parades and the past.

Mr McGuinness said failure to endorse Dr Haass's final blueprint represented a "huge missed opportunity".

All-party negotiations chaired by the US diplomat and Dr Meghan O'Sullivan broke up on New Year's eve without agreement. Unionist parties have voiced misgivings about the measures and a series of party leaders' meetings over recent weeks have yielded little progress.

Mr McGuinness told The Irish News earlier this week he would know by early March, when he prepares to depart for the US for the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations, whether there was a genuine desire among unionists for agreement.

He told those gathered in Wexford's Opera House last night that there were parts of Richard Haass's final document that Sinn Fein had been "uncomfortable" with but that was the nature of a five-party negotiation.

"We approached the talks, as we have every other negotiation we have been involved in, with the clear goal of reaching agreement and seeing that agreement implemented," he said.

"We always knew that agreement would require compromise on all sides."

The Mid Ulster MLA, pictured, warned that the time to strike a deal was now and that republicans would not be "entering into a renegotiation or a dead end process aimed at kicking these issues beyond the May elections".

"The time has come for unionist politicians to stop dancing to the tune of the Orange Order and their extremists," he said.

The deputy first minister appealed to "ordinary unionists" to make their voices heard. He also appealed to dissident republicans to "stop their activities immediately"

and said Sinn Fein would engage with the various anti-Good Friday Agreement groups without pre-conditions.

"i have been strongly of the opinion that political leaders must engage in dialogue with everyone, including those in groups involved in violence," he said.

The Sinn Fein figurehead lamented the performance of the Stormont executive, saying the potential for the devolved political institutions had not been fully realised. He said goodwill had been squandered as the result of a deliberate strategy by elements within the DUP.

"At a time when we should have been accelerating forward and leaving the opponents of the process in our wake, some within the DUP sought to apply the brakes as they stood time and again with the rejectionists and those opposed to power sharing - that was a huge mistake."

Mr McGuinness acknowledged there were senior members of the DUP who recognised that power sharing was "the only show in town".

"They know and recognise the reality that we have transformed the situation the north," he said.

The deputy first minister highlighted positive measures put in place by the executive, including the deferment of water charges, capping student fees and attracting inward investment.

He said he was committed to working with those unionists who wanted to see progress and called for the full delivery of the

Programme for Government. "We can unleash the true potential of our people if we can see progress on these age old issues and unite behind the common goal of building a better future for our young people," he said.

Up to 2,000 Sinn Fein delegates are expected to gather in Wexford today as the annual ard fheis continues. it will conclude tonight with a speech by party president Gerry Adams.