News Liz O’Donnell

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Haass efforts have put the North on a path to long-awaited accord

Published 07/01/2014 | 02:30

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Dr Richard Haass with Megan O'Sullivan  at the Stormont hotel in Belfast, where all party talks failed to secure a deal.
Dr Richard Haass with Megan O'Sullivan at the Stormont hotel in Belfast, where all party talks failed to secure a deal.

It would be wrong to characterise the end of the Haass process as a collapse. It was more a failure of nerve by the unionist parties to face down loyalist hardliners with elections just around the corner.

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But, to his credit, Peter Robinson has not stormed off the stage in high dudgeon. The door is left open for what Haass termed "a civic vision" or "common purpose" to emerge following wider public debate on the proposals.

Looking at the 39-page document, the intellectual investment is evident. Dr Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan have done valuable work by independently exploring complex unresolved issues. But what was missing was the hand of the governments, or rather the masterful British and Irish diplomats and civil servants with expertise and experience in crafting this type of agreement. After all, this is a sequel.

For example, the section on parades is so convoluted as to be inoperable in practice. It sets out the most tedious bureaucratic process of notification, consultation, appeal and eventual adjudication of contentious parades or commemorative events.

Many people had a hand in amending the document; as a result it is overworked. It includes a legally binding code of conduct for parades, which rules out paramilitary displays. Although totally appropriate, this was just not deliverable by the unionist parties at the table. Not for the first time one mourns the loss of David Ervine.

Sinn Fein is urging others to see the big picture and embrace the Haass plans. But Sinn Fein can control its troops when it comes to marching, while the DUP has no influence over loyalist paramilitaries on parades and flag protests.

And let us not forget the years of false dawns on the decommissioning of weapons. Sinn Fein and the IRA held back the great promise of the Good Friday Agreement for almost 10 years, by dragging its feet on giving up its arsenal. The army could not be perceived to have "surrendered" so we endured years of delay and obfuscation to spare the blushes of militant republicans.

And it's easy for Sinn Fein to be magnanimous in victory. It has all gone their way politically and militarily, north and south.

But the DUP, which was not even party to the original agreement in 1998, is coming late to the art of compromise. The DUP were rejectionists up to and until they could electorally overtake the UUP and enjoy the spoils of government.

They did not get where they are today by compromising or moving from fixed positions. On the contrary, their electoral success was built on not surrendering Britishness and all that goes with it to the forces of militant republicanism.

So, on the flag issue, I am not surprised Mr Haass admitted defeat; agreement could not be reached. The union flag is a potent symbol to all unionists that they did not surrender. It is as treasured to their perspective and credo as the issue of arms was to Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Moreover, in my view, this is a matter of sovereignty. Despite nationalism being "a legitimate political aspiration" under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Union Flag is the legitimate jurisdictional flag of Northern Ireland until such time as a majority in Northern Ireland votes to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in referendum. What can be more democratic than that?

I am quite sure David Trimble and the UUP would not have agreed to any significant change in the flying of the Union Flag, had it been on the table at Easter 1998. He just could not have delivered his party or unionist voters to support the referendum. I believe the flag is a sovereign matter, properly the responsibility of the two governments and ultimately the people in referendum, not the parties.

Given the investment of time and energy, perhaps Mr Haass should have aggregated progress as they went along, parking difficult sections, all the while locking in the parties to those sections where agreement was possible.

The concept of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" is not a helpful rule of negotiation. It is essentially a recipe for procrastination.

Incremental progress, while tedious, is more satisfying and from it a benign dynamic can grow towards unstoppable accord. All our experience in peace-making is that momentum is key. The two governments must now act with authority and speed and be persuaders of the parties to sign off on the sections where accord was found by Mr Haass.

Sections on the past and justice were thoughtful, even inspirational, in approach; it prioritised the needs of victims and survivors. It emphasised the provision of services to respond to the broken hearts, minds and bodies of survivors. Implementing these radical and uncontested sections could be the most important outcome of the Haass process.

Irish Independent

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