October 2013        

Haass unlikely to succeed

Fifteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement there is little evidence that the North is functioning, or indeed can function, as a normal political entity.
     This year began with a series of violent protests about flag-flying, which carried over into a troubled Orange marching season, followed by a series of cantankerous disputes over how to deal with the past. No-one can ignore evidence pointing to a failed state when those charged with administering the region are unable to agree on even the most basic of issues. Underlining the extent of this system malfunction is the almost despairing commissioning of emissaries from Washington to come and try to mend the mess.
     Northern Ireland, or “the North” (call it what you will), is caught in a double bind that Dr Richard Haass and Prof. Meghan O’Sullivan are unlikely to solve. On the one hand the local economy is ailing and the devolved administration in Stormont is powerless to fix it. Secondly, the logic or understanding on which the administration is supposed to be predicated, i.e. the Good Friday Agreement, has proved virtually unpalatable to the two main political parties and their supporters.
     Consider first the economy of the Six Counties. The area has one of the highest levels of child poverty and the highest level of economic inactivity in the United Kingdom, reputable voluntary agencies are expressing fears for the well-being of the elderly, and there is a continuing exodus of the young. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that a recent opinion poll conducted by the Belfast Telegraph reported less than 7½ per cent of the electorate satisfied with the political process in the North.
     Yet, because of the constitutional arrangement resulting from the Good Friday Agreement, local devolved government has very limited power or ability to address social and economic issues. Without fiscal authority, Stormont cannot perform the normal governmental duties of taxing and investing. The administration can only supervise the distribution of a block grant from the central government in London.
     During the years of armed conflict London contributed what amounted to a premium to the area in an effort to buy off discontent. With ceasefires and the restoration of devolved government, this extra subsidy is no longer available.
     Worse still, with a hard-line neo-liberal Tory government in office in London, the amount allocated to Northern Ireland is constantly diminishing as the British chancellor, George Osborne’s, austerity-driven campaign ploughs on relentlessly. Moreover, the prevailing wisdom from both Westminster and Stormont dictates the application of a stringently neo-liberal, free-market economic policy to the North.
     Not surprisingly, this has done nothing to address long-term unemployment or to regenerate communities experiencing the miseries of life on welfare. There is, in brief, little or no feel-good glow of prosperity resulting from the “peace process.” The Washington emissaries are not tasked with examining the North’s economy; but even if they were, no-one seriously believes they would recommend curbing neo-liberalism and its devastating impact.
     Compounding problems created by the Stormont Assembly’s inability to fix the economy is a deep reluctance by the main political parties to recognise and accept the underlying rationale of the Good Friday Agreement. Vernon Coaker, the British Labour Party’s shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, correctly told his party’s annual conference that Sinn Féin has to accept that in 1998 it signed up to Northern Ireland remaining British for as long as the people of the Six Counties wish that to be the case. While that much is accurate, he might have added that at the same time unionism agreed to accept Martin McGuinness and his colleagues as equal partners in the administration of the area.
     Northern Ireland’s two leading parties are therefore embedded within a dilemma created by this paradox. They do not have the power (even if they wanted to use it) to address the social and economic issues that might enhance their constituents’ lives and contentment. Deprived of this option, the parties are left to work within a political accommodation that most of their supporters are uncomfortable with, especially when its inherent and vital compromise is spelt out.
     Against this background, Dr Haass and Prof. O’Sullivan are charged with finding agreement on the tortuous issues of flags, contentious parading, and how the North interprets and deals with the past.
     Haass has said his team will finish their work before Christmas this year. They may well leave by Christmas, but the betting is that their departure will not be accompanied by the brokering of a definitive settlement. The chances of finding agreement on emblems and the flying of flags are slim; delivering an agreement on parades is more difficult again; yet in comparison with finding agreement on any narrative relating to the past, settling the flags, emblems and parades controversies would be simplicity itself.
     To reach agreement on these issues, the DUP would face a dilemma. It would have to forgo its tried and tested tools of communal divisiveness, which have served the party well for so long. Without the option of creating sectarian-led political diversions, and taking the lead in doing so, Peter Robinson and his party would, in the short term, risk being outmanoeuvred by other, more reactionary elements. In the longer run there is the even greater risk (for the DUP, that is) that a Northern Ireland without sectarian division would resort to class politics, rendering obsolete much of the political status quo and with it their brand of politics.
     Sinn Féin is also faced with difficult choices. In spite of mutterings from some of its senior figures that the power-sharing arrangement at Stormont is in crisis, the party has no wish to see the institutions collapse, leaving the type of political vacuum that others might fill. Nevertheless, if it were to concede significant ground on the Haass issues the party would be vulnerable to damaging criticism from its republican critics.
     In the light of this, it is difficult to see a permanent settlement emerging from the Haass intervention. Trying to manage a sectarian agenda will at best offer temporary relief. Long-term progress lies in a very different type of class-based politics, and that must never be lost sight of.

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