Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass takes the well-trodden path as US calls time on our failed politicians

Diplomat Richard Haass
Diplomat Richard Haass

There was once a time when the advice given to anyone offered a role in helping to sort out Northern Ireland's deep problems was 'don't go there'.

Don't get involved, don't get sucked in, don't do it.

This was pre-ceasefire, when peace seemed the impossible dream.

In that period, Northern Ireland was a political nightmare.

You could get swamped in the mire and it was a place to avoid.

But the ceasefires began to change things, or more accurately, the prospect of ceasefires began to change attitudes.

And international or outside help has been an essential ingredient in getting once impossible tasks done.

Senator George Mitchell weaved magic in political talks.

It took a while, but Canadian General John de Chastelain eventually made progress on the arms question, persuading republicans and loyalists to put weapons beyond use.

Other names involved at different times include Chris Patten on policing, the South African Cyril Ramaphosa and Finland's former President Martti Ahtisaari as arms inspectors before decommissioning, and Americans Mitchell Reiss and Richard Haass.

Both had the task of helping to get political agreements implemented.

And Mr Haass will be back this week for meetings with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and with other party leaders; back because the US diplomat has agreed to chair all-party talks on flags, parading and the past.

These are big questions. And in the absence of agreements, more images of street violence have made their way on to television screens and into newspapers over the past few days.

So, the scale of the task is obvious – seen in the debris of bricks and glass scattered around the feet of police officers standing on the Woodvale Road frontline.

The plastic bullets, water cannon and thousands of officers on the streets are a confirmation of the problems.

Asked about this latest role for Richard Haass, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "We are not talking about a rookie coming in.

"He knows everybody.

"This is a very intelligent man.

"He's somebody who made huge efforts here, who appreciates the progress that has been made.

"He knows the intricacies and complexities," he said.

But, from inside the loyalist community, there is a warning that these talks need to go wider than politicians.

Commenting on the initiative PUP deputy leader and Belfast City Councillor John Kyle said: "I think it has potential, but if not handled skilfully, and if there's not a genuine engagement by the political parties, it could achieve nothing.

"I think there has to be engagement with the stakeholders – loyal orders and representatives of the loyalist and nationalist communities because for many people they no longer feel that politicians speak for them.

"If it's only the politicians talking, the communities will feel it's a waste of time," he said.

The backdrop to the latest initiative has been the street violence of recent days and calls for the Parades Commission to be scrapped.

But to be replaced by what?

This will be a key element of any discussion and negotiation.

Is there some better decision-making model and, if so, why has it not been found?

There are those who believe there is a solution staring us in the face. Journalist and commentator Paul McFadden tweeted: "A good time to explore the Derry Model. A local Orangeman said they did the talk, and then they did the walk."

But Orangemen in Ligoniel will argue that in their case the talking got them nowhere.

Maybe that was because it was last minute and people were suspicious of motives.

At the time, a decision hadn't yet been announced but it was being predicted.

The commission "was minded" not to allow the return parade and so the dialogue was being viewed by some as a last-minute scramble to salvage something from that decision.

Whatever happens, some body to rule on parades and protests will be needed and this will be a key element of the Haass talks.

Then there is the issue of the past. And one of the key authors of the 2009 Eames-Bradley report, which was shelved over one proposal, believes Mr Haass should revisit the document.

Lord Eames said: "Since we published no-one has come up with the suggestions which meet the numerous issues we need to address on legacy.

"My sense is our report was before its time," he continued.

"Maybe that time has now arrived. I do honestly believe that," Lord Eames said.

The Eames-Bradley report recommended a Legacy Commission with Investigations and Information Recovery Units as well as a Reconciliation Forum.

What Richard Haass will have to decide and determine is whether there is the political will to seriously do these things.

Can he help design processes that take Northern Ireland out of its past – not by way of forgetting but within a structure that allows all stories and truths to be heard?

This week he starts talking.

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