A summer filled with violent confrontations in Northern Ireland has reminded all parties there that peace can never be taken for granted.
One key to securing a more peaceful future will be to resolve the flashpoint issues facing the region, former US diplomat Doctor Richard Haass said after his arrival in Belfast to chair a new political talks initiative.
Haass, appointed Special Envoy to Northern Ireland by the White House, has begun the first round of his negotiations with the aim of resolving three of the most intractable problems facing the power sharing institutions at Stormont.
Supported by US foreign affairs expert Doctor Meghan O'Sullivan, Haass hoped to build a consensus on the contentious matters of flags, parades and dealing with the four decade long legacy of the Troubles.
Widespread street disorder broke out on a number of occasions over the summer garnering international headlines and reminding political leaders of the necessity of finding an agreed way forward.
‘There's been tremendous progress but, that said, there is still a real need to move things forward and that is again why we are here,’ Haass told the Belfast Telegraph.
‘I think this last summer was something of an indication or something of a warning that one should not take the improvements for granted.
‘One has to embed it and one has also to broaden it and there's obviously unresolved issues and unresolved tensions or again you wouldn't have had the violence you had this summer and you wouldn't have had these lingering and persistent political differences and I think the five parties recognise that.’
Dr Haass has reportedly begun meeting political representatives from the five Stormont Executive parties.
It’s understood he will meet with them individually in the coming days before holding plenary talks at the end of the week.
Haass will also reportedly meet senior clergy and business figures as well as representatives from some of the smaller political parties during a week-long series of engagements.
A published author on the art of negotiation, Doctor Haass said the agenda and timetable was ‘ambitious but possible.’
‘The goal here is to come up with a consensus document that ideally would be both broad and deep, dealing with these three sets of issues, and that is our goal at this point.’
The Haass talks follow one of the most difficult summers in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Last week Doctor Haass reportedly met the First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in New York for a two-hour meeting he described as ‘extremely useful.’
After the meeting McGuinness expressed his optimism that a resolution could be obtained.
‘We are approaching all of this in problem-solving mode,’ he said. ‘These are very, very serious issues that badly need resolution and we are very determined to play a positive and constructive role during the course of these discussions to find a resolution to these problems, because quite honestly that's what people want - they want to see us moving forward decisively, building a better society, a new future for our young people, bringing inward investment, creating jobs and taking advantage of whatever tools at our disposal to ensure that people have a better standard of living.’
‘I think we are all agreed that dealing with the issue of the past might be the most difficult of all, but I think if people come at this with a good heart, huge progress can be made,’ McGuinness added.