Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Back to uncertain future after failure to deal with past

Professor Megan O'Sullivan

It's back to the future for Stormont today, with no agreement on dealing with the past. As the Assembly resumes after the seasonal recess, the fall-out over the failed Haass talks occupies the minds of MLAs – if not the general public.

The more coats of gloss are applied to the Haass proposals by nationalists and republicans, the more it seems unionists are unimpressed and, in some cases, downright suspicious. What started out as an ambitious project to find common ground last September, has not delivered.

Now the question is: where do we go from here? The answer is, most likely, nowhere other than to run on the spot once again at least until another election passes.

The good doctor Richard Haass, in placing the body politic of Northern Ireland in his intensive care, has written a confusingly complex diagnosis of the many ailments from which the patient continues to suffer.

Any hope that he might have a healing effect looks more forlorn with each passing day towards the month of May and the forthcoming council and European elections.

The best that can be said about the varying reactions to the Haass proposals is that the parties have been more politely measured in their comments towards one another than would have been the case in the really bad old days.

Not Ulster Says No, or No Surrender, or Not an Inch. Even the Orange Order and associated Protestant groups involved in parades have learnt how to use honeyed language, as evidenced by this statement: "We remain committed to playing a positive role in the process going forward."

If nothing else, Dr Haass can take comfort from the fact that none of the parties involved in the talks had a bad public word to say about him, or Professor Meghan O'Sullivan (above). Both have done their level best.

Unlike George Mitchell before the Belfast Agreement, they could not have been asked to come here at a more inappropriate time to act as arbiters on near-impossible issues.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness should have initiated talks months earlier than what turned out to be the 11th hour in September.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Haass talks had the hallmarks of political expediency to get the First and deputy First Minister out of a hole they had been in for years and from which they both knew they could not escape before the election season took hold.

To have gone into 2014 with no apparent effort being made to resolve parades, flags and dealing with the past would have been nothing short of political suicide. At least an argument can now be presented to potential voters that an attempt was made at negotiations.

Sadly, the talks have succeeded in reinforcing the unionist/loyalist versus nationalist/republican divide in Northern Ireland – a consequence that neither Dr Haass, nor Professor O'Sullivan, may have foreseen.

They were invited here at a time when the broad unionist population was not in a mood to make any major concessions. Both Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt should have known that even before the flag was removed from Belfast City Hall.

It seems events have been moving too fast for the unionist community. In the eyes of some, Sinn Fein has proved adept and articulate at arguing its case.

Much is being made of the influence of hardline loyalists on the unionist leadership. That is to overlook the wider pro-Union community, unsettled and disillusioned by devolution and the divisions between the Ulster Unionists and DUP.

Faced with fast-diminishing returns at the ballot box, the unionist parties know they need to offer reassurance at the May elections to tens of thousands of their most apathetic followers by holding the line – and the Union flag.

Had Richard Haass recognised that hard political reality last summer, he might have thought twice about accepting the invitation to chair the talks.

As for dealing with the past, the broad unionist community simply doesn't accept that members of paramilitary groups killed during the Troubles can be mentioned in the same breath, or considered in the same manner, as victims of those groups.

The sad conclusion of the Haass talks is that unionists and republicans are living on different planets when it comes to dealing with the past. They may continue to do so until the generation involved in the Troubles is no more.

The past remains impossible, so it's back to the future – whatever uncertainties that holds for all of us.

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