Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass talks: A chance for a real process to deal with the past, but it won't succeed without political will

Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan put in the hours to make progress
Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan put in the hours to make progress

This talks process has been about getting the scaffolding in place -- and then leaving the actual building work to others. So the US Team drew the pictures, the architect's sketches -- but it is up to others what happens next.

Where we can see the potential to build something meaningful is within the process on dealing with the past that was shaped in the drafting and redrafting by the Haass/O'Sullivan team.

They have left the building blocks, which include a Historical Investigations Unit with full investigative powers and, at another tier, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.

This is about information or 'truth' recovery -- about trying to get at least some of the answers to the many questions left by the years of conflict and it is why a form of limited immunity has been written into the plans.

But there are missing pieces.

Who will co-operate, and on what terms?

In other words, will answers come from named individuals or in a more 'corporate' response from the organisations and agencies and security forces -- republican, loyalist, police, military, intelligence, political and governments?

An information retrieval or recovery process will change things only if there is significant co-operation across the board.

So, you can create the structure, but you can't force people through its doors.

In late drafting in this long process, we watched how quickly things could appear and disappear from the script.

For instance, within the proposed information retrieval process there is a plan at some point to look at themes and patterns.

We read a list of these in draft five of the document at the weekend:

  • Alleged collusion between UK and loyalist forces, and between the Republic of Ireland and PIRA;
  • Alleged ethnic cleansing in border regions and interface neighbourhoods;
  • An alleged UK shoot-to-kill policy;
  • Detention without trial and alleged mistreatment of prisoners by UK;
  • Reported targeting of off-duty and reservist RUC officers by the IRA;
  • The degree to which, if at all, the Republic prolonged the conflict by knowingly providing a safe haven to the IRA;
  • Alleged intra-community punishment or enforcement by paramilitaries;
  • The policy behind the Disappeared;
  • Sources of financing and arms for loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

But, by early yesterday morning and draft six of the document, that entire list had gone.

While unionists expressed concern, there is an argument that if a process is to be truly independent then its homework should not be set by politicians.

There is a real fear about the past, about doubling back and what such a journey might reveal these many years later.

Some have concerns about a "rewriting of history" and others know the different narratives will be disturbed in this excavation of a decades-long conflict.

They also know that such a process is not just about those who went to jail and not just about the IRA and loyalists.

It is about many others -- and the many different sides.

Haass and O'Sullivan have also built in a monitoring system -- an Implementation and Reconciliation Group -- that would look at the different strands of that process of dealing with the past, at what works and what doesn't.

All of this drafting and sketching is about bringing some order and structure to what, up to now, has been a piecemeal, fragmented and scattered approach to addressing the past.

Other proposed strands will look at acknowledgement, reconciliation, a story-telling archive and at the needs of victims and survivors.

But it will only work -- can only work -- if those left with this project and plan want it to work.

Haass and O'Sullivan have coaxed and urged and persuaded all they can -- but this process needs political will and leadership.

Some victims representatives gathered at the talks hotel yesterday evening, understandably anxious and concerned about the next steps and about what all this writing and rewriting will add up to in the end.

What will it mean for them? What will it really mean for truth and justice?

It depends on commitments to the proposals, depends on political will to do the building and it depends on leadership.

These are the key ingredients.

If this Haass/O'Sullivan process is implemented, as intended, then five years after the Eames/Bradley report was shelved, there will be something there that can be called a process on the past.

That would be different, a step change -- something worth doing and having.

We don't see the same progress in the other strands of this negotiation.

The flags issue wasn't resolved, but rather pushed into a longer term process and a commission looking at broader cultural issues.

One talks insider described it as a "big societal conversation" -- but for a long time that conversation has played like a broken record.

There is no certainty that another 18 months of talking will change anything, nor can a new parading framework promise any real change on the ground.

What if the Ardoyne march ruling next July is the same as it was this July?

Will there be calls then for a replacement of the Authority on Public Events Adjudication?

Haass and O'Sullivan were never in a position to impose a deal. They were here as facilitators. The best work they have done -- where you can see detail in the design -- is in that area that people feared would prove most difficult.

It has been in the strand of the talks relating to the past, but proposals are just that -- and on their own words on paper change nothing.

The next challenge lies with the Executive parties and whether they really want to do this. In a way, that will make the real difference.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk