News Liz O’Donnell

Monday 15 September 2014

Liz O'Donnell: North has changed – but old quarrel lingers like a ghost

Published 05/11/2013 | 02:00

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US Diplomat and former envoy Richard Haass was right to set realistic expectations for the task of chairing the panel of parties negotiating to resolve "lingering divisive issues" in the peace process.

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He was back for another round of discussions and consultations to look at parades, flags and the "past". It has been a disastrous 15 months in the North with flag protests, riots and violent sectarian incidents reminiscent of the worst years of the Troubles. The economic and reputational cost has been significant and inter-party relations are apparently strained to the point of paralysis in the Executive.

By coincidence, Alastair Campbell was in Belfast and Dublin to promote his 'Irish Diaries', with high-profile launches bringing the drama of his 10 years' involvement in the peace process back into our focus. Tony Blair's controversial and colourful director of communications and strategy was generous in his praise of the contribution of then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who attended the Dublin launch and contributed a foreword to the book.

The Dublin event was a memorable affair hosted by Miriam O'Callaghan, who interviewed the author and invited questions from the floor. Our own master of spin PJ Mara made an impassioned tribute to a blushing Ahern seated beside him. It would have been churlish to disagree. Both friend and foe acknowledge the peace process as Ahern's greatest legacy and achievement in Irish politics.

Fifteen years on, much has changed for most of the individuals who played a part. Yet, on the ground in Northern Ireland, the past lingers like a ghost over the present.

On the same day, I was invited to address a Reconciliation Forum in Dublin Castle, hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Blair's former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, who penned his own memoir on the peace process, also shared his reflections 15 years on and drew comparisons with other conflicts. Delegates at the forum drawn from civil society and community organisations bemoaned the moribund political situation and searched for ways to counter sectarian tensions at ground level. All agreed that a regrettable vacuum had formed after the untimely death of PUP leader David Irvine, leaving a significant cohort of loyalism rudderless and unrepresented.

All spoke of the challenges of dealing with the past and building a shared and better future. Many despaired of the capacity of the politicians to lead in a way that would transcend their own tribe.

My own experience of politicians in Northern Ireland is that they are masterful in advocating their own fixed positions but notoriously poor at reaching out to understand the perspective of the other side. The spirit of mutual generosity that was so necessary for the agreement to be reached in 1998 has all but disappeared.

A view was expressed that the power-sharing arrangements, based as they are on the divided allegiances of Green and Orange, only serve to perpetuate the sectarian divide, leaving no room for progressive and reforming voices to be heard. And it is the case that the power-sharing Executive was framed specifically to suit the post-conflict situation and that it is a strange and limited democratic construct. There was a general concern at the disconnect with politics and young people in Northern Ireland; unsurprising given the turgid state of political discourse there.

The old quarrel is just beneath the surface at all times; wounds barely healed. The political status quo is based on tribal allegiance rather than economics or social policy platforms. Normal politics has not taken hold in a meaningful way to allow a diversity of opinions. Most children are still educated in segregated schools. There is an opening for a new radical party to emerge, which could harness the longed-for desire for a totally fresh start. But is there sufficient energy in civil society to make that leap?

Although honouring those who died in the conflict is understandable, tit-for-tat commemorations or events that honour bombers are not helpful in fostering reconciliation.

My own view is that, 15 years on, much has been achieved, albeit slowly. But it took almost 10 years to implement key aspects of the agreement, including a functioning Executive, police reform, demilitarisation and an end to illegal armies. So perhaps people should count from 2008 rather than 1998 when assessing progress.

One forgets that the DUP now in pole position was not part of the agreement. On the contrary, they were rejectionists until, due to electoral success, they could enjoy the spoils and responsibility of power themselves. They came late to the party.

Perhaps what is needed now is for all the parties to renew with generosity the "vows" of the original agreement to help us over the final hurdles.

Irish Independent

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