Sunday 20 January 2019

North's leaders 'stuck in victimhood', says peacemaker Soderberg

Former US ambassador to UN warns DUP and Sinn Fein are playing a 'zero sum game', writes Shona Murray

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Shona Murray

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg has criticised leaders in Northern Ireland, saying they "remain stuck in their victimhood".

Soderberg served as an ambassador under the Clinton administration as part of its efforts to secure the Good Friday Agreement.

"Generations of leaders remain stuck... they remain stuck in their victimhood," she told the Sunday Independent, adding that as a result they were "denying prosperity to the young people of Northern Ireland".

Talks to re-establish a Stormont Executive failed again last week. The devolved government of Northern Ireland is rolling dangerously back towards direct rule from Westminster as a result. And in spite of a collective desire to avoid such a destructive development, it appears as if the DUP sees this as inevitable.

"In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an executive being formed," said DUP leader Arlene Foster.

"It is now incumbent upon Her Majesty's government to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure."

The impasse is ostensibly over the Irish Language Act which would give equal official status to Irish and English. Although high-stakes brinkmanship goes hand in hand with delicate negotiations of this type, there is a consensus that on the previous Friday an agreement that was palatable and sellable to all sides had been made.

What emerged was an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a Respecting Language and Diversity Act that the leaderships of all parties were reportedly satisfied with.

Republicans could sell it as a win for their stand-alone Irish Act and the DUP could incorporate it as part of several strands of legislation.

However, over last weekend opposition from DUP grassroots figures - sparked when the arrival of both Theresa May and Leo Varadkar created a sense of a deal having been done behind the scenes - led to Foster's rejection of the proposals.

Soderberg said constant distrust between the main unionist and nationalist leadership was due to the lack of meaningful transitional justice policies, such as a truth and reconciliation commission or a restorative justice programme.

"They have had no truth and reconciliation and haven't made efforts to recognise in a more formal way the mistakes of the past," she added.

Instead, she said, they operated on a basis of a "zero sum game", where others have to lose out for the other side to be satisfied.

"This mentality has held up progress in a way that has denied young people the right to enjoy new-found peace.

"It is 2018 - pay tribute to grandchildren rather than grandparents," Soderberg added as she prepares to meet up with her fellow peacemaker George Mitchell for an official ceremony in Washington DC marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Soderberg, a close ally and friend of the Clintons, also said it was "irresponsible for the UK to pull out of the EU". But she laid the blame squarely with former British prime minister David Cameron.

"I put that firmly on the prime minister of Britain - he shouldn't have had that referendum. I look squarely on London for that," she said.

Brexit had made the situation in Northern Ireland all the more disturbing because people understandably don't want to be isolated on the island of Ireland, or see "trade and commerce lose out".

Besides harming the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit would "take away prosperity from Britain in a way they will regret for many years", she added.

Soderberg said that while real structural change in Northern Ireland had been slow, it was always important to point out that the situation was not veering toward a resumption of hostilities.

"It's important to keep the big picture here. Yes, other peace processes have gone on faster, but the people of Northern Ireland must be commended that the resumption of violence is not on the table," she added.

"The days of bombs, violence, British troops are gone - unlike in other unresolved conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan."

At the same time, she said, Northern Ireland was not Chile, Rwanda or South Africa - countries where truth and reconciliation projects that were implemented as part of those nations' healing processes, are regarded as being strong catalysts in bringing those societies forward.

During the 1990s, peacemaking in Northern Ireland received considerable political capital, attention and funding from the US.

But the Trump administration has not appointed a special envoy to the region, and it is unlikely the matter will draw anything like the interest it once did on Capitol Hill.

However, Soderberg believes the US would be willing to "assist" as an independent broker once again if needed.

Sunday Independent

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