Optimism for agreement thin on the ground

John Manley Political reporter

OPTIMISM for agreement appeared in short supply yesterday as the all-party talks aimed at finding a resolution to flags, parades and the past got under way at Stormont.

Notably, the first of two three-day negotiation sessions started without a full strength DUP team.

As the four other parties wheeled out their big guns -- including leaders and MPs -- the DUP was represented at the talks table in the morning by special adviser Emma Little and Orange Order chaplain Mervyn Gibson, who it is understood is not a member of the party.

Sources from other parties close to the negotiations described the absence of any DUP elected representatives as "a bit odd" and "interesting", however, a party spokesman insisted the make-up of its team was in no way reflective of a negative attitude towards the process.

"Nothing is to be read into our choice of personnel," the spokesman said.

"We are committed to serious engagement."

In the afternoon junior minister Jonathan Bell joined the DUP team after returning from Battle of the Somme commemorations.

As expected, the opening session focused on formulating an agenda that could continue the incomplete process chaired by Richard Haass, which ended on New Year's Eve without agreement.

However, last night it appeared little progress had been made, with the Ulster Unionists keen to bring their immediate concerns about parades onto the agenda.

UUP negotiator Tom Elliott accused other parties of refusing to confront specific issues, such as the disputed north Belfast parade.

"We are talking round things as opposed to talking about specific issues," he said .

"To me, we need to deal with the hard issues. There are a lot of difficult issues out there at the moment and we need to talk specifically about them."

Nevertheless, all the parties insisted they were genuine in seeking a resolution.

Arriving for the talks yesterday morning, Sinn Féin's lead negotiator Gerry Kelly acknowledged there was public scepticism about what the negotiations would achieve.

"From our point of view we are setting the scepticism aside," he said.

The North Belfast MLA said his party was committed to working throughout the summer if that's how long it took to get a deal.

"These three toxic issues need sorted out and we have a chance of doing that," he said.

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said it was time to "get things sorted out".

He also called on the British and Irish government to become directly involved in the process.

"We have had four months of Haass, we have had six months of leaders' talks, we know what the issues are and we now need a solution," he said.

"The SDLP are there to ensure we do what is necessary in the next two or three weeks to solve and bring the thing to a conclusion."

Alliance Party leader David Ford said he was not sure an agreement could be struck this week but expressed hope consensus could be found after all six days of talks.

* NEGOTIATIONS: The Sinn Féin negotiating team, left to right, Sean Murray, Gerry Kelly and Jennifer McCann, speak to the media at Stormont ahead of a three-day session of intensive negotiations, while below, SDLP Alasdair McDonnell also addresses the gathering at Parliament Buildings yesterday

* ONE YEAR ON: Issac Andrews (West Belfast UPRG) pictured, left, at the Twaddell loyalist protest camp, coming up to one year on after a Parades Commission determination last July prevented three local Orange lodges walking along a stretch of the Crumlin Road


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