DUBLIN (AP) — An American diplomat with hands-on experience of the Northern Ireland conflict will oversee a new round of Belfast talks aimed at tackling the most entrenched issues still dividing Irish Catholics and British Protestants, the territory's unity government announced Tuesday.
Richard Haass, who was President George W. Bush's envoy to Northern Ireland in 2001-03, has been appointed to lead multiparty talks aimed at brokering compromises on a long list of deadlocks that proved too difficult for the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
Agreement this time also looks like a tall order. Points of dispute include Catholic opposition to Protestant marches, the most fundamental trigger point for Northern Ireland violence; the contested rights of both sides to fly their preferred British and Irish flags, an argument that sparked Protestant street blockades and clashes with police throughout December and January; and the question of how to honor and bring justice for the 3,700 dead from a nearly 45-year-old conflict.
Haass, 61, last represented the United States in Belfast negotiations at a time when the central achievement of the Good Friday pact — a cross-community government for Northern Ireland — crumbled and fell amid Protestant demands for the outlawed Provisional Irish Republican Army to disarm as part of the Good Friday deal.
Power-sharing collapsed in 2002 but was revived five years later after the Provisional IRA did disarm and formally abandon its campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
Haass was the U.S. State Department's director of policy planning until 2003. Since then he has served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
The leaders of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, said in a joint statement they were "deeply grateful" that Haass was returning to Belfast. They said Haass would be expected to publish recommendations by the end of the year that "provide long-term and sustainable solutions."
The Northern Ireland government declined to specify when the new talks would start. Haass declined to comment.
Haass' return as a Northern Ireland peace broker raises memories of George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator whom President Bill Clinton appointed as the United States' first envoy in 1994. Mitchell was supposed to have only a short-term assignment focused on U.S. business investment, but was persuaded to oversee an ever-lengthening chain of negotiations that produced the Good Friday pact and kept him tied to Belfast for years afterward.