Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass Talks: Is anyone really in the mood to settle these questions?

Dr Richard Haass said consultations this week had made him optimistic that the talks initiative could deliver a positive outcome
Dr Richard Haass said consultations this week had made him optimistic that the talks initiative could deliver a positive outcome

Richard Haass likens the past to "a kind of umbrella" – meaning that under it there are many different stories and experiences.

And we saw that yesterday. We saw it when Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone spoke to the media with members of the Victims and Survivors' Forum behind her.

And that one moment spoke a thousand words about what Ms Stone described as "the complexity of different narratives" – something she said Haass "gets".

Stephen Gault was there. His father was killed by the IRA in the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bomb. Also there was John Loughran whose uncle was shot dead by the Army.

Peter Heathwood was wounded by loyalists. Alex Bunting lost a leg in a booby-trap bomb attack.

Ann Travers' sister Mary was killed by the IRA. And also in the picture was Eibhlin Glenholmes, once dubbed Britain's "most wanted" IRA suspect.

So, in that one moment yesterday, we saw under the umbrella.

The backdrop to this meeting with Dr Haass is another and the latest battle over the past; a battle on the very definition of victim and who should be remembered and who should not. The US chair of these talks doesn't yet know what will be possible, but he does know the importance of people being able to tell their stories, and that will be important for victims and survivors to hear.

In Dublin a few days ago Jonathan Powell touched on the raw issue of the past when speaking to a reconciliation conference jointly organised by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the group calling itself 15 Years On.

That's 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement when Powell was a key British negotiator. He spent around 10 years in talks that shaped political agreements and delivered decommissioning, demilitarisation, formal statements ending armed campaigns and the republican endorsement of new policing.

But he told the conference that "no-one seems to be in the mood to settle the past". The challenge he said was dealing with the past "without poisoning the future".

As part of the 15 Years On group, former senior police officer Peter Sheridan who is now chief executive of Cooperation Ireland met Dr Haass after that Dublin conference. "Maybe the best we can hope for is that everyone accepts that the other has a story," Mr Sheridan told the Belfast Telegraph.

"They don't have to agree or accept that it is right, but that it is another person's story," he said.

This is the "complexity of narratives" described by the Victims Commissioner yesterday.

Mr Sheridan agrees with Mr Powell that "there is no right answer for dealing with the past".

Haass knows the scale of the challenge. But he is not downbeat.

Yesterday he said he "hadn't heard or read anything that suggests we are wasting our time".

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