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US peace envoy back in Belfast, faces hard sell

Saturday - 12/28/2013, 3:36pm  ET

Former US diplomat Richard Haass, right, and co-chair Prof Meghan O'Sullivan arrive at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013. They returned to Belfast to resume talks aimed at solving some of Northern Ireland's most contentious issues. Dr Haass said he was back "for one final effort to help reach agreement". Talks by the main parties on parades, the flying of the union flag and the legacy of past violence broke up without agreement on Christmas Eve. (AP Photo)

LONDON (AP) -- American envoy Richard Haass returned to Belfast on Saturday for a second attempt to quell simmering disputes that have periodically erupted into violence across Northern Ireland. But his plan -- details of which have not been made public -- appeared to face long odds after the province's leading Protestant politician suggested some parts of the proposed deal were unacceptable.

"There's a large part of the document I could readily bring to the party. There are other elements that render the rest unworkable," said Peter Robinson, who leads Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists, the province's major Protestant-backed party.

Northern Ireland has been transformed from the days in which the Irish Republican Army grappled with the British military and Unionist militias over the fate of the province, but lingering disputes over flags, parades, and how to deal with the legacy of the conflict periodically inflame sectarian tensions.

Haass, director of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003, was called in by the province's power sharing government to help resolve the issues. Six months of negotiations were supposed to have secured an agreement before Christmas, but even though Haass' deadline passed he said he saw enough potential to return for a second try.

The disputes that Haass has been trying to bring hinge on Catholic opposition to Protestant marches -- long a trigger point for Northern Ireland violence -- and the contested rights of both sides to fly their preferred British and Irish flags, an argument that has recently led to street blockades and clashes with police.

Both sides are also wrestling with the question of how to honor and bring justice for the 3,700 dead from the decades of bloody conflict.

In a statement to the press ahead of the last-ditch negotiations, Haass said more time wasn't the issue, giving the parties until Monday to come to an agreement.

"At some point we have got to fish or cut bait. That time has come," he said.

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