Thursday 24 April 2014

Spirit of 1998 is only 'past' the North needs to revisit

There was a real sense of history repeating itself as US diplomat Dr Richard Haass and his colleague Harvard Professor Meghan O'Sullivan appeared before the clicking lenses committing to assist in brokering agreement on the vexed issues which continue to dog the peace process.

Fifteen years after the political settlement encompassed by the Good Friday Agreement there is unfinished business beyond the capacity of local political leaders.

It is a good start that the agenda is at least finite: parades, flags, emblems and 'the past'. But as journalist Eamon McCann has queried, where does the past begin? Nineteen twenty one or 1968 or do we go back to William of Orange?

There is little hope of finding an agreed version of the past from the perspective of the Orange and the Green. To do so would require abandoning old allegiances and justification for politically motivated terrible deeds. Such a shift is the stuff of psychotherapy rather than politics.

I understand that the South African process of Truth and Reconciliation made great strides of this nature, and it may be that, however belatedly, the North may go down such a route to find reconciliation.

Unlike many other aspects of the conflict, such as weapons, institutions and prisoner releases, forgiveness cannot be legislated for. Like trust it has to be earned over time.

What is remarkable is the continuing need for outside help. One might have expected more political maturity after all this time. But judging by the stand-off over the Maze Centre project following the DUP's Peter Robinson's change of mind, the relationship between the DUP and SF is in trouble and requires mediation.

By coincidence, US Senator George Mitchell was in Ireland this week welcoming the 2014 group of Mitchell scholars, a programme started by the Irish and US governments in recognition of the senator's contribution.

Those of us privileged to witness his chairmanship of the talks remain in awe of his skill. Over a five-year period, he coaxed, cajoled and mediated the most fractious group of politicians on these islands. People so wedded to their fixed positions that dialogue as we know it was not possible for years.

At that time, what passed for political discourse in the North was often bigoted name-calling; there was little, if any, understanding of the "other".

Because the main protagonists in the parties did not know each other as individuals, it was possible to continue that "dissing" of each other.

But Mr Mitchell, with saintly patience, succeeded in building sufficient dignity in the conduct of the talks that eventually, participants started to behave civilly rather than trading insults and, refusing to even acknowledge the other side.

The late Mo Mowlam always regretted the process was not a "people's project" and she had a point. It was a top down, micro- managed process, driven by the two governments, mediated by Mr Mitchell and his colleagues and facilitated by the unerring patience of the moderate parties such as the SDLP, Alliance, the Women's coalition and individuals like the late David Irvine.

The task facing Dr Haass is not as daunting. Parades and flags are a finite package which with goodwill on both sides is a manageable piece of work. By all accounts he enjoys the trust and respect of the polarised parties and groups and should be well placed to lead them to a civilised space where an accommodation can be found.

Fixed positions have no place in this regard; each side must be willing to shift. For example the right to parade is not absolute; reasonable and respectful guidelines can be agreed by the Orange Order so as to avoid the unacceptable scenes of the past.

Similarly, Republicans must accept the essential compromise of the Agreement: the principle of consent. The Agreement delivered a new dispensation for nationalists to include power-sharing, cross-border bodies and a transformation in policing and the judicial system.

However, like it or not, the North remains part of the United Kingdom until a majority decides otherwise in referendum. That being the case, the union flag carries a jurisdictional legitimacy which must be respected.

Exceptions to this can be listed and agreed places and occasions where the Tricolour can be raised or union flag lowered without offence or resort to violent protest. Both sides must abhor the ruinous economic and reputational cost of last year's rioting in Belfast.

But to expect Dr Haass to wave a diplomatic wand over "the past" is a tall order. The political status quo, including the power-sharing government, is defined by reference to Orange and Green. The body politic is rooted in the past; a fact which stymies the emergence of a new politics.

What is needed is for the parties to revisit the spirit of mutual generosity which allowed them to transcend their tribes in 1998.

Irish Independent

Also in this Section




Meet, chat and connect with
singles in your area


Meet Singles Now



Now available on

Top Stories

Most Read

Independent Gallery

Your photos

Send us your weather photos promo

Celebrity News