Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

We're depending on Santa Haass delivering a deal

Dr Haass has redrafted his blueprint not once but twice

The presence of Dr Richard Haass in Belfast over the last three months is really an indictment of Stormont's failure to govern.

He has been asked to do in a short timespan what the collective responsibility of five political parties could not achieve in 15 years.

Whatever the level of agreement this Christmas week, it will be just in the nick of time. Too many people in Northern Ireland have already lost the will to think about politics as evidenced by the increasing apathy at election time.

None of the political parties can afford to face the voters next May with so many issues unresolved. As Dr Haass said at the weekend it is up to the parties themselves – "how much they want agreement and how intolerable they find the status quo".

The most famous end game was Easter 1998 when George Mitchell took the political parties to the wire on Good Friday.

Now the pressure is on again as Christmas 2013 approaches and none of the participants wants to admit in this season of peace and goodwill that they have been found lacking in the face of yet another American arbiter. The political jockeying is under way.

The BBC published an opinion poll last week on the talks issues which was notable particularly for the number of people who expressed no view on flags, parades and the past.

On flying the Union flag, 24% had no opinion. On a parades commission, 37% had no opinion. On the Maze peace centre, 19%. On a truth commission offering immunity, 26%. On whether police should continue to investigate Troubles offences, 25%.

These are telling statistics suggesting that a large proportion of people in Northern Ireland are getting on with their lives, exasperated by the seemingly irreconcilable politics around them.

If at first you don't succeed, then try and try again has been the Haass tactic of negotiating. Undaunted by the initial negative reaction from unionists, Dr Haass has redrafted his blueprint not once but twice. As soon as unionists learned he was daring to suggest even a glimpse of a tricolour on an officially-sanctioned Ulster flagpole, I feared he would be on the next flight to America never to be seen again.

In the old days, the unionists would have walked out and that would have been that. I doubt if even George Mitchell could have survived the tricolour gaffe but it is a tribute to Dr Haass that he hung in there, took the stick that was undoubtedly thrown at him, and even managed to put the steam back inside the First Minister Peter Robinson's ears.

Mr Robinson's open annoyance was all the more surprising given that had been instrumental in appointing Dr Haass in the first place.

Perhaps our politicians are recognising at long last how the public is fed up with the type of precocious behaviour which marked previous negotiations and which has also been evident in the Stormont Assembly.

Walk-outs and foot-stamping are no substitutes for rational debate and argument or an option in formal negotiations such as Dr Haass is conducting.

Now we await the final outcome. On dealing with the past, the people who really matter are those who have suffered loss. If the conclusions of the Haass deliberations are broadly acceptable in the eyes of victims' groups then the rest of our society should approve. The sacrifice which so many families and relatives of victims have made gives them a right to be the final arbiter.

The words "immunity" and "amnesty" are now part of the political vocabulary. However, it remains to be seen where the balance will be struck between finding the truth about the past and preserving the right to justice.

There must be agreement on a revised form of dealing with contentious parades and much greater input at local community level by those who organise marches and those who object to them. The Orange Order has been out of order on too many occasions with even mainstream unionist opinion. A resolution of the parades issue is the very least the public will expect from the Haass talks. As to flags, the obvious compromise is for the union flag to be flown on limited designated days and more consideration given to a regional flag which the people of Northern Ireland can look upon with respect and pride.

Whatever Santa Haass delivers on Christmas Eve, we should be grateful for his efforts. Without him, the reality is that our politicians would still be in gridlock.

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