U.S. diplomat Dr Richard Haas has claimed most Americans are surprised that the White House is still involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Dr Haas made the remarks in an interview with the Irish Times ahead of next week’s talks in Belfast aimed at resolving issues including flags, parades and legacy issues from the Troubles.

As America debates the Syrian crisis, Dr Haas admitted Northern Ireland’s problems rank below many other international concerns for Americans.

However, if he can play a useful role in the search for agreement on contentious issues, then he is happy to try.

He said: “We are there to assist, but it is up to local leaders in the community, in the society, and in the political process, to be willing to put forward their ideas, to accept compromise, and to try to recommend to their respective constituencies and supporters to accept and support those compromises.”

Northern Ireland’s main parties will attend the Belfast talks to be chaired by the US envoy.

The US diplomat said: “There is enough concern to warrant this process and my participation in it.”
He added that the US is quietly concerned at the persistence of segregation and confrontation between communities at sectarian flashpoints, and is keen to act.

The talks take place after US president Barack Obama referred to ‘wounds that haven’t healed, and communities where tensions and mistrust hangs in the air’ during his visit to Belfast in June.

President Obama said: “There are walls that still stand; there are still many miles to go.”

In the Irish Times interview, Dr Haas noted significant progress in the 10 years since he was last posted to Belfast by former president George W Bush.

He said: “However there is concern over the violence that scarred the summer marching season.”

The report says he also highlighted the danger of what he termed political ‘backsliding’ among the parties in the Stormont Executive.

Dr Haas added: “We will listen, we will suggest, and I would think, as the process unfolds between now and the end of the year, we will obviously be making recommendations.

“The goal, as everyone knows, is to come up with a consensus document by the end of the year.”