Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

God help Richard Haass... Real ideas, not hope, are needed to fix peace process

Dr Richard Hass pictured with Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan at the Europa Hotel in Belfast for the beginning of the inter-party talks
Dr Richard Hass pictured with Harvard professor Meghan O'Sullivan at the Europa Hotel in Belfast for the beginning of the inter-party talks
Heather Morris, speaking in dove-like tones on Good Morning Ulster the other day, ahead of her meeting with Dr Haass, said that "one of the things we do bring to the table is hope"

God help Richard Haass. No, really. God help Richard Haass. From the safe distance of the other side of the Atlantic, it must have looked like a little local difficulty; a few messy loose ends needing tidied up in an otherwise successful peace process.

Even when he got here, he was talking ambitiously about sorting out segregated housing and schooling, as well as flags, parades and the past. And all before Christmas.

Ha. He'll learn. In fact, now that Dr Haass has had a chance to survey the lie of the land (very bumpy, quicksand in some places, cliff-edges in others and with numerous concealed bodies), I expect the reality is sinking in.

Our difficulties are intense, tightly wound, possibly even intractable. And yet we cling to them like lovers.

Everybody's been in to see him and say hello, of course. And this week, we have heard a lot about the Hope and History campaign, a joint initiative by the churches, set up in support of the Haass talks and endorsed by the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Sean Brady, Church Of Ireland Primate Richard Clarke, Presbyterian Moderator Rob Craig and Methodist President Heather Morris.

It's all about hope, you see. And humility. And healing. They want us all to sign up to a statement that "gives positive encouragement to those who are committed to making peace work". Who could possibly object to that? Well, me for a start. I could. And do.

We are asked – and this is the clincher – to "accept humbly our own part in how the past has shaped the present; our complicity in the divisions within our society and our contribution to the pain that different people across the spectrum of our society have experienced".

Beyond that, "we need to seek forgiveness for the past and change the way that we live and speak and act in the present in order to foster a shared and peaceful future".

Now, hang on a minute. This all sounds very reasonable and persuasive and terribly humble, but what exactly are we putting our names to here?

It seems that we are being asked to enact, collectively, a confession of guilt and culpability for the harm we have caused in the past to others, as well as an admission that the present mess is somehow all of our faults.

Some of us did, indeed, cause pain. Sometimes, it was the ineradicable kind of pain, the sort that spirals down the generations, continuing to maim and destroy decades after the bullet first flew from the chamber.

Some of us were, indeed, complicit in perpetuating divisions, in both large and small ways. If you recognise yourself in any of this, and (crucially) regret it, by all means sign up to the document.

But many – a great, great many of us – did not cause pain, were not complicit.

Many of us never succumbed to the mania of sectarianism, always turned away with a shudder from the grotesqueries of discrimination and intimidation.

Assuming responsibility and asking for forgiveness for everything (including things you didn't do) is the moral equivalent of taking responsibility for nothing: equally meaningless and redundant.

It's simply the sanctified flip-side of the old, self-absolving paramilitary plea that "we were all responsible". No. We weren't. Some were, to a greater, or lesser, degree and some were not.

Heather Morris (below), speaking in dove-like tones on Good Morning Ulster the other day, ahead of her meeting with Dr Haass, said that "one of the things we do bring to the table is hope".

She went on to say that she "hears hope" as she chats to people on the interfaces and she "sees hope" in a campaign like Hope and History, where people commit themselves to peace-building.

Sorry, but what does any of that mean? That we all want things to get better? That we hope they do?

It's not that I oppose hope, or humility, or healing in themselves. Who does? And, of course, I want Dr Haass to come up with some workable answers to our foolish, bitter squabbles. Who doesn't?

Really, is there anyone, apart from a smattering of twisted nutters, who is rubbing their hands together and gloating at the prospect of failure?

Yet a nebulous sense of hope is of little direct use in the present circumstances. What we need are hard, real, practical ideas to deal with the current grim portfolio of impasses.

Healing might follow, but only if we get it right.

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