Haass to begin crunch talks at Europa

Haass to begin crunch talks at Europa

American diplomat Richard Haass is to begin the task of chairing cross-party negotiations on contentious political issues remaining in Northern Ireland.

Politicians in the region have so far been unable to agree on a resolution on issues surrounding flags, parading and dealing with the past.

On Tuesday, Dr Haass will start a series of bilateral meetings, beginning with the SDLP and Sinn Féin at Belfast's Europa Hotel.

He will also speak to community groups, church leaders and business representatives over the next few days.

The initial discussions will culminate with the first plenary session on Friday.

Speaking last week, Dr Haass said there was some urgency for progress following a "difficult" year of violence related to parades and protests.

The former US envoy met First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in New York last week as a prelude to the talks - it was the first time the Northern Ireland leaders had been face-to-face since the DUP's withdrawal of support for the Peace and Reconciliation centre at the Maze site.

The Europa Hotel, once the most bombed hotel in Europe, has played host to many senior political figures over the years in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Michael Williamson, who worked as the hotel general manager in the 1990s, said it is critical that the talks are successful.

"Northern Ireland has come a very long way in the last decade and a half, but clearly our problems aren't behind us yet," Mr Williamson commented.

"I think until those issues are fully dealt with and effectively put to bed once and for all, the next major step in tourism may be more of a challenge."

In many ways the Europa became the maternity ward for the peace process and now I suppose you could say that this is the intensive care for the peace process.

Chris Ryder, journalist

Chris Ryder, retired Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph journalist, described the hotel as the "maternity ward of the peace process".

"When the Europa opened in 1971, the Troubles were at their peak, and we had a huge influx of journalists from news organisations from the rest of the UK and indeed throughout the world," he explained.

"At the escalation of the conflict, the city closed down at night, the Europa became a great big beacon of light and energy.The hotel itself became a target on many occasions, the bombs were directed at the hotel or other times the windows were blown in, the rooms were damaged because of bombs going off.

"The Europa symbolised the fight for normality against all the disorder, death and destruction that was going on round us."

Mr Ryder said the venue choice highlighted the work still outstanding.

"When the ultimate negotiations were underway, we had George Mitchell made his base here and President Clinton actually came to stay here to underline the peace process," he continued.

"Richard Haass is going to use the Europa to try and bridge and settle some of the differences that remain from the years of conflict which haven't been settled yet.

"The differences that Mr Haass has been asked to resolve are sometimes 200 or 300 years old, and I wouldn't be terribly optimistic he can do that in two or three months."

Mr Ryder concluded: "People are utterly disillusioned with politicians and Mr Haass has his work cut out to cut a deal on these deeply divisive open wounds that still remain before the peace process can be seen as utterly successful."


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