Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

We're naive to think Richard Haass can work magic like Santa Claus in time for Christmas

Richard Haass
Richard Haass

Richard Haass doesn't look much like Santa. No flowing white beard, for a start, and he hasn't demonstrated any particular prowess with a flying sleigh. But it's touching how much we need to believe in his ability to deliver everything we've always wished for, right in time for Christmas.

We're like children, hoping against hope that once again – and, yes, we do make a bit of a habit of this – a genial man from a land far, far away will rescue us from ourselves and offer up the magic solution that will guarantee lasting peace.

When will we ever grow up? I'm not just talking about this ridiculously juvenile obsession with the presence, or absence, of national symbols and emblems, though God knows that's childish enough.

Farcically, it's got to the stage where our municipal dumps now have illicitly-raised flags, marking them out as strongholds of proud sovereignty. The useless crap that we've thrown away, because we don't need it anymore: it, too, must be assigned its own jurisdiction.

That dented baked bean can is British; that half-eaten takeaway is Irish. If anyone ever needed a metaphor for the sheer absurdity of the place, this is it. Even the rubbish is sectarian.

But it's more than that. We are naive, because each time we hope for too much.

Regardless of the outcome of the Haass talks, you'd think we would have realised by now that any solution, however inventive and inclusive, is only a provisional measure.

A temporary answer to a problem so intractable, so deeply ingrained in the very marrow of this society, that it is never going to completely go away.

In modern therapy culture, it's often said that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, unless there's a genuine willingness to change.

Northern Ireland is the patient on the couch that puts the truth in this truism: volatile, fragile, with a previous history of sustained psychotic outbursts.

One parade dispute is resolved, or fizzles out, and, like magic, a new one emerges. Some terrorists lay down their weapons, others – thankfully much smaller in number and significantly less competent – take them up and start leaving bombs on the pavement among Christmas shoppers, or walking into shops and setting themselves on fire.

There has always been – and always will be – a minority of twisted fools, intent on fomenting trouble of one kind or another, for reasons that make perfect sense to them – if they think at all – but leave the rest of us incredulous, bewildered and angry. These people, whatever the colour of their rubbish, are addicted to feeling oppressed. It's not rational. It's visceral; it comes from the guts. They derive their whole sense of identity from it; it feeds them and clothes them and gives them the will to get up in the morning.

It's a powerful drug that allows them to make sense of their entire lives. Why would they then – through whatever complex political machinations – be persuaded to give it up, unless something better was on offer?

So the best we can hope to do is manage and contain this addiction, which requires vast amounts of time and money. Policing parades and protests, for example, now costs £1m a week.

As we have already seen in the past, it may also require various forms of appeasement, or capitulation, or selective forgetfulness, which leave the rest of us feeling uneasy and ashamed, as though we were party to deals that dishonoured us all.

Maybe we were dishonoured, maybe we will be again in the future. But there's no other way to go forward, when you share space with these people: those for whom the red roar of the tribe drives every other thought and emotion from their minds and for whom the perceived iniquities of the past are more real than the present.

It is a case of them-and-us. Not in the old sense, but the new one. Them: the minority of loopers who don't care whether they wreck this place in the service of their own mad obsessions. Us: the majority of people living here who couldn't give a monkey's about all that and just want to live our own lives, free from fear and taint.

It's time we got real, ditched the fantasy wish-list and adapted our hopes for the future accordingly. In Northern Ireland, peace is something we are destined always to reach for, but will never entirely grasp.

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