Published Thursday, 12 September 2013
The American diplomat has been asked by the First and deputy First Ministers to chair cross-party talks to try to deal with the issues threatening the peace process. Parading, flags and emblems are toxic issues and this year, we've seen how the passions they arouse have resulted in violence on our streets.
The past continually hangs over the political process.In recent weeks, the sensitivities surrounding it led to the peace centre at the Maze being stalled. The multi-million pound development now hangs in the balance.
Speaking to Richard Haass in his New York offices, it's clear he understands the challenges ahead, but he remains optimistic. Understandably, he would not be drawn on how he sees these issues being dealt with.
Dr Haass insists the first two months of the talks will be about listening and he wants to hear from anyone who has an opinion - politicians, residents' groups, victims, community leaders, etc.
In an effort to be inclusive, his team are inviting submissions from members of the public on a specially developed website.
One striking feature of any conversation with Dr Haass is that he listens. Really listens.
He is careful about the choice of words - his and yours. He is "optimistic", not "confident" of progress. We have had a "difficult" year, not a "bad" one. Vocabulary counts.
He will carefully listen and disseminate the many opinions he will hear over the coming months. He also has a clear view on how the negotiations should proceed.
The first two months will be about listening and, as the process goes on, ideas will be put on the table for everyone to respond to. Dr Haass is not being prescriptive - he sees this as an organic process. But the timeframe is hugely ambitious, with Christmas as the deadline.
Again, he appears relaxed.
Dr Haass says that negotiation results in "a moment of truth" when those taking part must decide if they can accept the compromises that have been hammered out and, perhaps more importantly, if they can sell them to those they represent.
The first time an American diplomat came to Northern Ireland, our politicians managed to agree on devolution and a shared government. Senator George Mitchell says if there is the political will, Richard Haass could also be successful.
The man himself was typically non-committal, saying only that he's willing to help.
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