Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Can politicians help Haass deliver a surprise result?

Pressure: Peter Robinson is feeling the heat from other unionist parties as Richard Haass prepares for complex deliberations
Pressure: Peter Robinson is feeling the heat from other unionist parties as Richard Haass prepares for complex deliberations

August after August, the promise is held out that the marching season next year will be different, but to date it never has been. Northern Ireland is still a godsend to the 24-hour news channels, struggling to fill their bulletins when the Western world goes on vacation.

Perhaps it was simply too confusing to explain, but my impression is that recent events were reported unduly superficially on the national and international news.

Of course, the news that 56 police officers were injured in the centre of a city cannot be ignored. However, if anyone wanted an example of bad news getting more prominence, the sharply contrasting atmosphere in Belfast and Londonderry provided it.

The battles on Belfast streets grabbed the headlines, yet the equally significant peacefulness of the Apprentice Boys march through Derry did not rate even a mention on some of the programmes I watched. This was all the more surprising given that the Troubles really kicked off in Derry after the 1969 march. The week-long Relief of Derry events culminating in an orderly parade of thousands of unionists through a nationalist-dominated city should surely have proved more newsworthy than it did.

The world's media can still set the time when Northern Ireland's midsummer madness begins. Sadly, another summer of discontent has reinforced the old "riot-torn" cliche. The damage cannot be undone. We will never know how many viewers will now be having second thoughts about holidaying, working, or investing in Belfast.

Meanwhile, from faraway Florida, First Minister Peter Robinson has sent his letter to the DUP faithful, slamming shut the last H-block cell door and consigning what is left of the infamous prison to an oblivious future.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the unionist electorate is hotting up. The more one looks at the political machinations among the Stormont parties, the more one sees another divisive election looming in 2014, with more to follow in succeeding years.

As a consequence, the task facing US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is turning more challenging and complex by the week. If he manages to find a way through the political maze of flags, emblems, parades and dealing with the past by the New Year, he will deserve a Nobel peace prize in his own right.

Even from Florida, the First Minister could see the writing on the wall at the Maze. It spelt disaster for his party, because so many mainstream unionists were at odds with his original views and outraged at the idea of the hospital where IRA hunger strikers died becoming the centrepiece tourist attraction on the Maze development site.

For once, the DUP was outflanked by the Ulster Unionists, whose leader, Mike Nesbitt, distanced himself from the Maze plan long before Peter Robinson produced his 12-page letter from American retreat last week.

The unionist quest is to regain the votes of an increasingly apathetic and disillusioned electorate, which feels that Sinn Fein is getting away with too much.

Fringe parties are also biting at the heels of the DUP and Ulster Unionists. One-man-band he may be, but TUV leader Jim Allister has shown a capacity to eclipse and embarrass both at Stormont.

Progressive Unionist voices are also more prominent over the issue of flags and parades. The loyalist paramilitaries have not gone away in urban Ulster.

Victims's groups are raising concerns at what they see as the glorification of terrorism. Nor can the unionist leadership ignore the powerful Orange Order lobby – even though the organisation has no formal political links anymore.

Mr Robinson's letter from America reflects the pressure on unionist leaders to challenge more stridently republican dogma and the cultural agenda of Sinn Fein.

The hardening attitudes could not come at a worse time for Dr Haass. Tough positions are being taken up – and not just because of his pending presence. The main unionist parties believe the way to win over apathetic hearts and minds is to avoid being seen as soft on their opponents.

The timespan for Dr Haass's deliberations seems desperately short to resolve so many deeply contentious views. Perhaps he can take heart from the incredible performance of the national football team against Russia and hope Northern Ireland's politicians can produce another surprise result?

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