28 December 2013
Last updated at 05:33 ET
Meghan O’Sullivan and Richard Haass (both centre) have chaired a series of round-table talks
Former US diplomat Richard Haass is due to host resumed talks in Belfast aimed at solving some of Northern Ireland’s most contentious issues.
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.
But Dr Haass’s quick return has brought guarded optimism of potential progress.
He and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan hope to help leaders reach agreement by New Year’s Eve.
The pair, who were brought to Northern Ireland in July by the first and deputy first ministers, returned to the US for Christmas after talks broke up without agreement in the early hours on Christmas Eve.
Speaking at that time, Dr Haass said work done “politically and intellectually on contending the past is truly significant”.
“I think also there has been important work done on the question of parading,” he said.
“Yes, it’s true that the work done on flags is quite disappointing by any measure but the other two areas, are I believe, quite impressive. I believe it would be a real shame not to turn that work into a reality.
“Let me be clear about this, we don’t have an agreement. (But) in no way have we given up on the possibility of still reaching agreement before the end of the year.”
‘Close the gap’
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s talks, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There is still, I think, the prospect of reaching agreement on at least two of the three areas that have been under discussion.
“That relates to how we deal with our troubled past and the issue of parades and I think that if we all make the effort to try and close the gap we can reach agreement on those two issues.
“In respect of flags it’s going to be more difficult.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said: “Failure isn’t really an option if you consider that Richard Haass was invited here by us, by the parties, by the first and deputy first ministers.
“All of these issues are solvable, all these issues can be sorted out. So I think very much that a deal is possible if we bend our will to achieve it.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has said his party “accepts the ongoing challenge of seeking a fair and agreed outcome to the Haas talks”.
Tensions over flags were heightened in December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to only fly the union flag from city hall and other council buildings on 18 designated days – previously it had flown continuously.
The decision was condemned by unionist politicians, and it sparked street protests, some of which were violent and led to the injury of more than 100 police officers.
Flags are seen as important expressions of cultural identity in Northern Ireland, with Unionists and Protestants generally giving allegiance to the union flag.
BBC Ireland correspondent Chris Buckler said the parties seemed deadlocked over displaying flags and the issue was likely to be moved into a completely separate process.
Even with an extra few days of negotiation, achieving a deal on that particular issue would be a challenge, he added.
Dealing with the legacy and aftermath of Northern Ireland’s Troubles is another difficult issue to resolve.
More than 3,500 people died during the Troubles, and in almost 3,300 cases there were no prosecutions.
A Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was set up to investigate unsolved Troubles murders, but has itself proved controversial.
All political parties agree that the rights and feelings of victims should be at the centre of any process.
What the process should be, and exactly how a victim is defined, however, have proved almost impossible to agree.
Parades meanwhile, are usually connected to the unionist, or Protestant, community.
The majority of Orange Order parades are not contentious
Most are organised by the Orange Order or other religious/cultural organisations, and the majority are not contentious.
But those that pass by, or through, nationalist areas, can be controversial.
Many nationalists feel that parading is an expression of historic unionist domination over nationalists in Northern Ireland.