January 2014        

Dealing with the past

No-one should have been surprised that the pre-Christmas Haass talks broke down without a positive outcome. The American diplomat Dr Richard Haass, along with his colleague Prof. Meghan O’Sullivan, had sought to find agreement between the North’s political parties on the issues of parades, flying of flags and dealing with the past.
      In fairness, the Americans were faced with an almost impossible task. The nature of politics in post-Good Friday Northern Ireland simply does not allow for mutual agreement around those issues. Although at the time of going to press the North’s two main parties maintain that some degree of agreement is still possible, the chances of a meaningful accord remain slim.
      Notwithstanding optimistic claims being made by some local politicians, and in particular the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, that a measurable amount of progress has been made, the reality is more questionable. As Dr Haass prepares a fifth draft outlining a possible agreement, it is worth noting that what he is proposing is, at best, the creation yet again of agencies to examine and engage with the key issues. Setting up procedural mechanisms is a long way from resolving actual difficulties.
      A solution to one of those difficulties is already ruled out. The American diplomat’s suggested answer to the flags and emblems problem has been rejected by those participating in the negotiations and is therefore dropped for the foreseeable future. With only two issues remaining on the table, the Americans are recommending that two bodies be tasked with addressing the past and another two-tier arrangement be charged with brokering agreement around contentious parades.
      This is all well and good, but few familiar within Northern Ireland will be persuaded that creating still more unelected committees without legislative power can make any significant difference on these crucial issues. There is no shortage of mediators, skilled negotiators and conflict-resolution specialists in Northern Ireland. We have senior trade unionists, leading church persons and respected academics all capable and willing to convene and facilitate such sessions if requested.
      The problem is not a shortage of facilities or deal-brokers but that there is no willingness to accept mediation and compromise on the contentious issues.
      Although it is widely reported that negotiations broke down over the issue of flags and emblems, the reality is that what lies at the heart of this problem is a battle to impose a particular interpretation on the North’s history.
      In essence, this struggle is what political commentators describe as a fight to set the defining narrative in order to establish the political context. Neither Sinn Féin nor the Democratic Unionist Party is willing (or indeed can afford) to grant legitimacy to the other’s explanation of the past, because what each presents as analysis and fact leads directly to their management of the present.
      The scale of this difficulty is vast, because dealing properly with the region’s history involves more than a fact-finding mission confined to identifying “victims and perpetrators” and thereafter verifying their political affiliations. However distressing it would prove to be, that kind of cataloguing process would be relatively straightforward. What causes an insurmountable obstacle, however, is investigation of a different kind: the type that searches and highlights the deep-rooted causes of the Northern conflict and those parties culpable for its origins and duration.
      Peter Robinson and his party refuse to acknowledge that unionism behaved profoundly undemocratically in the past and thus bears a measure of responsibility for provoking a violent republican uprising. For the DUP to do so would not only undermine its position among hard-line supporters but would eventually entail making concessions that would risk fracturing the cross-class consensus on which Paisley-style unionism depends.
      While unionism refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing in previous decades, its leading spokespersons are forced to argue that Orange parades are a perfectly reasonable and legitimate cultural expression. Moreover, they must insist that the Orange Order and its supporters are entitled to march where they wish, regardless of the feelings of those who see them not so much as providers of musical entertainment but as a menacing intrusion and an unwelcome reminder of an unhappy previous existence.
      By the same token, unionism as it is now constructed cannot afford to concede that a large section of Northern Ireland society is entitled to feel alienated by the Union Jack, because doing so dilutes the myth on which the above-mentioned cross-class unionist façade rests.
      In the meantime Sinn Féin is content to allow unionism to impale itself on a number of hard-to-justify positions. Sinn Féin knows that in the absence of such distractions as violent parades and flag protests its own supporters would begin to ask about its failure to make any meaningful impact on the economic wasteland that is the Six Counties. Difficulties with the health service and increasing emigration and unemployment remain obscured by the fixation with communal conflicts.
      Taken together, these factors point towards an impasse in the Haass negotiations. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that some form of modest agreement will be reached in principle and on paper. This might take the form of a well-meaning but ineffective aspiration to do better next time, and may be the only type of outcome possible within existing parameters. How useful or otherwise this will prove to be will be tested and probably found wanting when placed against the reality of next year’s marching season.
      In all of this it is worth reminding readers that while the body politic in Northern Ireland remains focused on the issues being addressed by Richard Haass, other important matters remain unattended. Confining the political agenda within existing parameters ensures that the present status quo remains intact. It would undoubtedly be a relief to all in the Six Counties if contentious issues concerning flags, parades and the legacy of the past could be laid to rest; but to do so requires a very different discourse.
      In practice, the only realistic option is not to spend endless effort trying to reconcile the irreconcilable but to render these issues relatively unimportant in the course of a struggle to build a different and better world.

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