Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

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How Haass talks got stuck in the political mud: Wordplay, toxic issues, arguments and despair

The Haass talks failed to reach agreement after more than 200 hours of tense negotiation. BRIAN ROWAN examines how the deal fell apart

Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan at Stormont Hotel
Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan at Stormont Hotel

Morning became night as the long Haass negotiations ran from early to late, right through into New Year's Eve.

And it was a period of one deadline and then another – a day of reading and talking that was not confined to the negotiating rooms at the Stormont Hotel.

Elsewhere, others with a keen interest in what was going on were doing their own reading and talking.

"There were points when Haass looked in despair," one talks insider commented about the talks chair Dr Richard Haass, "when he couldn't understand the argument on words when the concept was agreed".

One such moment came in the discussion related to the information retrieval or recovery process – and the use of limited immunity.

How else could immunity be described so that it couldn't possibly be confused with amnesty?

"By trying to change it to inadmissibility, it looked like you had something to hide," one source commented. And, so, late into the night the wordplay and arguments continued, even though elsewhere in the script prepared by Dr Haass and his vice-chair Meghan O'Sullivan it was made clear that an amnesty was not on offer.

Yes, any information given to the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval would be protected, but the road to justice was being kept open through the creation of a new and separate Historical Investigations Unit.

"There are also likely to be some who carried out violent acts who would, under certain circumstances, be willing to provide information about actions they took during the conflict.

"We emphasise that these circumstances must not include an amnesty," part of the final text read.

But, while there is agreement on chunks of that seventh Haass/O'Sullivan document, an overall five-party consensus was not reached.

And the next step is a working group to continue this long, protracted negotiation. A working group without the US team called in to facilitate these talks.

In a tweet to me on January 1, Richard Haass wrote: "Resuming my life, but will monitor party support for document and political will in NI to translate text into policies."

It was a response to a tweet I had sent to him asking: "Have you managed some sleep since getting home? Imagine it will take a while to get flags/parades/past out of your thinking."

This negotiation on those three toxic issues had begun in earnest in the middle of last month with the negotiators from the Executive parties reading a first draft document on Monday, December 16.

They were given rooms at the Stormont Hotel, were not allowed to bring in mobile phone and could not take the paper away.

Haass and O'Sullivan were trying to protect the confidentiality of the talks, but at each phase and with each script, the key parts of what was under discussion became known.

This newspaper reported much of the evolving detail.

By Sunday, December 22 it had become clear that a deal on flags was not going to be possible.

And, at this stage of the drafting process, the idea of a Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition was introduced, pushing one of the three issues under discussion into a longer-term process.

"The flags thing is just being kicked down the road," Alliance MP and negotiator Naomi Long told this newspaper.

"There was nothing to sign up to on flags except more talking.

"I don't think the proposals we took into the talks on flags were unreasonable," Ms Long added.

"But some of the parties we were negotiating with were unreasonable."

New parading architecture was being designed as a replacement for the Parades Commission model.

A three-tier process became two, set within the frame of The Office for Parades, Select Commemoration and Related Protests and The Authority for Public Events Adjudication.

And a new structure for addressing the past was being shaped. It would include:

  •  An Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).
  •  An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).
  •  An Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) tasked with monitoring and oversight in the process of addressing the past.

The package in this area also included acknowledgement, needs of victims and survivors and, in a section on sharing experiences, plans for a story-telling archive.

It is in this part of the text that we see the most detail in the design. And, it is across the area of the past, that this negotiation moved furthest, with Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone now urging the five Executive parties to take the next steps.

"The politicians have said they will listen to and heed the voices of those who have given the most; they have said there is an unimaginable debt to be paid to those who have experienced loss, injury and lifelong mental health trauma.

"Quite simply, that debt must be paid and failure to progress is not an option," Ms Stone said.

As the talks continued through Monday, a number of victims arrived at the hotel, including Stephen Gault whose father was killed in the 1987 Enniskillen Remembrance Day bomb.

I chatted to him for a while; told him that no one at this time knew what an information retrieval process would deliver, who would co-operate, and under what terms and how much new information would be shared.

Take that bombing in Enniskillen all those years ago.

If we get to the point of the new Independent Commission being established, would the IRA now admit that in its planning it knew that civilians would be killed?

That that was part of the calculation, and yet the attack was allowed to proceed?

And would such a statement represent something closer to the truth? But the past is not just about the IRA. Look at the themes and patterns to be examined as part of that information process relating to a decades-long conflict:

  • Alleged collusion between governments and paramilitaries.
  • Alleged ethnic cleansing in border regions and in interface neighbourhoods.
  • The alleged UK shoot-to-kill policy.
  • The reported targeting of off-duty UDR soldiers, prison officers and reservist Royal Ulster Constabulary officers.
  • The degree to which, if at all, the Republic provided a 'safe haven' to republican paramilitaries.
  • Intra-community violence by paramilitaries.
  • The use of lethal force in public order situations.
  • Detention without trial.
  • Mistreatment of detainees and prisoners.
  • Any policy behind the Disappeared.
  • The sources of financing and arms for paramilitary groups.

That list was in, then out, and back in again in the late drafting that was part of this negotiation and, for unionists, that was important, with one negotiator describing it as giving "proportionality" to any examination of the conflict period.

"On the past there are still some issues around language that need to be hammered out," DUP MP and negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson told the Belfast Telegraph.

But maybe this is one of the problems with this negotiation and why it got stuck in the political mud in those early hours of New Year's Eve. A negotiation can't put what is meant to be an independent process into a type of political straitjacket.

It can't write a narrative and context before that process even begins and, so, the challenge is to let this go to the next phase.

"There's a paper on the table," Sinn Fein negotiator Sean Murray said. "It's now about implementation."

He said the five-party Executive working group "can't be another talking shop", that "clarity" was needed, not "fudge".

The SDLP has already spoken in terms of a general endorsement of the final text – recognising the work that has been done to advance a process on the past. And the Ulster Unionist Party will meet on Monday to decide its position on the paper.

There is an important role also for the First and Deputy First Ministers – for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

They called in the Haass/ O'Sullivan team.

And the governments – British and Irish – are not observers or referees in this process, particularly when it comes to examinations and explanations of the past.

In that final text given to the parties, Haass and O'Sullivan created a path and it is now about who is prepared to walk on it, who will take the next steps and who won't.

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