Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass talks team came this close but failure is an option

Endgame: Dr Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan deep in conversation during the talks process in Belfast

A week is a long time in politics. Immediately after the Haass talks, Peter Robinson denied that they had been a failure. Now he acknowledges that they were, but says all five parties were equally responsible.

"I do not recognise as accurate reports of 'talks failure', given the wide gulf that existed on the Haass team's arrival and the broad areas of agreement on their departure," Mr Robinson said on January 1. On January 7, he struck a different note, stating: "Where there has been failure to reach agreement, it lies at the feet of the political parties alone – and in equal measure."

Mr Robinson may argue that last week he was saying that Dr Haass had not failed and, more recently, he was saying that the parties had failed to reach agreement.

Either way, the open acknowledgment that the parties have failed a test is better than denial that anything at all went wrong.

The next step should be an acceptance that the DUP, as the largest party, and Mr Robinson, as First Minister, bear the heaviest responsibility to provide leadership and retrieve the situation and he is closely followed by Sinn Fein, whose co-operation he needs.

There is an onus on these two parties to form a common approach and there is an opportunity to do so on Monday, when Sinn Fein has tabled a motion on the Haass talks at the Assembly. After failing the test of the talks proper, this is an opportunity to resit the examination and move towards a pass mark.

The Sinn Fein motion states: "That this Assembly acknowledges that the published Haass/O'Sullivan proposals represent a significant opportunity for political parties to show positive leadership, have the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the peace-building process and offer an opportunity to take significant steps forward in a number of difficult policy areas; notes that Dr Richard Haass was invited jointly by the five Executive parties to chair the process and thanks Dr Haass, Professor O'Sullivan and their team for their very worthy contribution over the past six months; calls on the Executive to begin putting in place the foundations for implementation of the proposals; and further calls on all parties to support their successful implementation."

The DUP may bridle at the last sentence, which calls for the implementation of proposals which were not fully agreed. Yet Mr Robinson says he is satisfied that "the broad architecture [of Haass] is capable of housing long-term workable arrangements", though the details need more work.

The two parties will increase their standing and the standing of politics generally if, over the weekend, their drafting teams can come together and agree an acceptable form of words.

They need something that would enable them to amend and streamline the proposals without a complete renegotiation of all the terms.

If the Assembly degenerates into a sectarian bear-pit, that will send a dismal message to voters and to the outside world.

The following Monday, January 20, the DUP has tabled its own motion on the Smithwick Tribunal into Garda collusion in the murder of two senior RUC officers, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.

It calls for anyone involved to be brought to justice and both police forces to co-operate closely to prevent any new atrocities.

At this stage in the peace process, parties should be able to find a united approach on both motions so as to project an image of stability to voters, investors and visitors. That would change the narrative of failure.

On the other hand, grandstanding sessions, with MLAs taunting and insulting each other, would compound our difficulties.