Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass talks: A penchant for making mountains of molehills

What we grandly term 'the legacy of the past' other people just call politics. Richard Haass has better things to do than dignify our petty squabbling, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Panacea for our ills: Do we really need outsiders like Richard Haass to solve insular issues like the flags dispute

Right about now, Richard Haass might be wondering if he has more important things to do elsewhere.

Syria is threatening to overspill across the entire Middle East, Israel is twitching to attack Iran, Afghanistan is about to be left to sort itself out and the global economy is still faltering.

It must feel like demotion for a globetrotting troubleshooter to be sent to Belfast to sort out problems which the Executive hasn't the gumption, or imagination, to deal with.

How often should the Union flag fly over City Hall? How do we rule on parades? And what about the past? Haven't other people already laboured on these?

Isn't the problem not so much that we can't find the answers ourselves, but that there are always a few truculent upstarts who won't accept them?

And Dr Haass might be containing his frustration at the sight of the file in front of him fattening.

He'd hardly got his first meetings over last month than politicians were suggesting that, apart from parades and flags and the past, he might give us a few answers to the problems of segregated education and housing. Maybe while he's at it, he could tell us how to direct children from primary schools into secondary schools – a feat beyond the wit of our Assembly – or how to run care homes without the children getting raped.

Of course, these are different categories of problem. One set belongs to the peace process and the other is just ordinary politics. What they have in common, however, is that here we can't do either.

And maybe we should stop letting ourselves off the hook of political incompetence by aggrandising disputes into historic challenges and put all these problems onto the one agenda and call it what they call it everywhere else: politics.

But we won't. A few loyalists from east Belfast feel so afflicted in their very souls by the removal of the flag that they have to block the roads. The Orange Order wants to march past nationalist areas, where others oppose them, and no resolution can be found.

In Glasgow, if they had this problem, they would have to sort it out themselves, but we categorise it as part of a legacy of division that has to be resolved under the peace process.

Peace processing is most of our politics now. No one told us at the start that the peace process would never actually end; that every factional grievance would have to be played out on a world stage and considered as worthy of international mediation as, say, the rights of Palestinians.

We have lost the run of ourselves. We are addicted to conflict and attention. We are like a smouldering old couple, who have come to enjoy their relationship counselling too much. We don't know how to be ordinary, yet the clues are all round us.

Belfast is the size of Hull. The degree to which it esteems the global relevance of its street-level disputes should be an embarrassment. Of course, the counter-argument to this is that we have real divisions that have the real potential to turn bloody and for the region to become ungovernable.

Well, do we now? What is it that divides Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist communities? Fifty years ago, those communities were defined by religious difference and concerns to either abolish, or preserve, partition.

If my old chauvinistic Christian Brother form master came back today, he would be shocked to find that religion is of little consequence and that most people aren't fussed about a united Ireland. Irish unity will come about only if people are content it will make no practical difference to their lives and not before. So, what have these communities got left to argue about?

There is less substance in their division than there is between the support groups for rival football teams. At least when teams clash, somebody wins and somebody loses; the contest has some point to it. This one hasn't.

Secularisation and the loss of concerns about the border have left only symbols to fight about. Which is not to say that community division isn't real. Of course it is.

One is historically Irish and broadly content with the Belfast Agreement and the other is historically British and similarly content. And, as in every other society in the world, there are people who feel estranged, disaffected, alienated. We should be concerned about that – but we should not be peace processing over it, let alone summoning foreign diplomats whose presence will flatter us with the nonsense that our problems are big and historic.

And Dr Haass might also ask whether anyone will accept his solutions. People laboured long and hard and thoughtfully to create a Parades Commission. Now even the first minister undermines it by attacking its rulings. If negotiations produce compromise settlements of problems that the Executive and the police can't solve, then ministers should have the decency to endorse and support those rulings.

If a council votes legitimately to change its flags' policy, then other bodies, which believe in the democratic process, should respect that as final.

But that is not how things work here. Because we are different. We have something called an historic legacy of division.

We don't have ordinary politics; we have to have peace processing and a US envoy. This is pathetic.

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