It is easy to make excuses for inaction and failure, but this is not the time to embrace or justify either inaction or failure. This is a moment for leadership.
Leadership means being prepared to move a little ahead of public opinion so as to give direction and hope to a society.
The temptation for a weak or insecure leader is to stand his ground and not move out of his party’s comfort zone.
In a recent radio discussion I was told not to expect any dramatic gestures in the Haass talks because there are elections due in May. No leader, least of all Peter Robinson of the DUP, will want to leave himself exposed to criticism by doing something edgy or innovative, it was argued.
I think better of him. Mr Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the First and Deputy First Ministers, invited Richard Haass to help them get over a difficulty in the peace and political processes.
He was their first choice to chair negotiations, and the timing of the talks, with local and European elections scheduled in May, was their call.
If either man is such a fool as to believe that negotiations were possible without compromise or sacrifice being involved, then, as a society, we are in deep trouble. We will have the opportunity to send the parties a message in May.
Of course there is a difference between being prepared, in principle, to make a compromise and actually having the courage to make a decision that risks criticism from some supporters. It is easier to make an inspirational speech or talk about a shared future than to actually do something about it.
Yet doing nothing or sticking on familiar ground is not a safe option. If no agreement is reached on flags, parading or the past, there is a price to be paid. It will be paid in terms of social cohesion and our international reputation. When Richard Haass first came here he was asked what friends in America thought of his posting. He replied that most of them were surprised because they thought our problem here was largely sorted.
When you are looking for foreign direct investment and international tourists, it is not a good thing to tell the world that there are still problems here which nobody is prepared to tackle and which could flare up at any time.
If we fail to reach agreement, Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan are likely to produce a paper pointing out where, in their opinion, we went wrong and failed to compromise.
If we succeed, we will be presented as an example of how a society can move on from intractable problems.
There are high stakes here. We need to start 2014 with substantial progress on parades and dealing with the past in a way that will enable us to face the truth about our troubled history.
That could win the support, both in words and resources, of London, Dublin and Washington.
The impasse on flags is serious, but it need not be a complete disaster if we can put in place a process for beginning to deal with the issue in a transparent, agreed way.
DIARY OF THE ENDGAME
Noon: The deadline for responses to a list of questions which Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan sent to the parties yesterday morning.
Tonight: Haass and O’Sullivan send the five Executive parties a new draft of their paper.
9.10am: Haass and O’Sullivan arrive on the ‘red eye’ flight from New York.
12pm: Haass and O’Sullivan meet all the parties |individually.
Evening: Round-table talks with the five parties.
Haass and O’Sullivan adjust their paper and talk to parties that are prepared to continue working. Last week the DUP took Sunday off on religious grounds, and it may well do so again.
Morning: Final talks with the parties.
Afternoon: If agreement is reached, the announcement is pencilled in for now.
Haass and O’Sullivan return to the US.