Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Unionists need to up their game to be heard by US ...

First Minister Peter Robinson with President Barack Obama and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the White House on St Patrick's Day, 2011

Richard Haass hasn't gone away, you know. He will be back, not to chair long-term talks, but to put forward proposals of his own on how to navigate the impasse over flags, parading and the past.

I predicted this in the New Year, but it runs counter to much media analysis, which may be why it didn't attract much attention when he said it in plain terms at a US Congress sub-committee on foreign affairs hearing on Tuesday.

Most reports focused on his prediction that violence could return if we don't come to terms with the legacy of the Troubles, but this was no more than an educated guess. His words about his own intentions carry more weight.

He said the proposals which he and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan published last year were not his last word on Northern Ireland.

"The text does not always represent my, or Professor O'Sullivan's, view of what would be optimal for Northern Ireland society... Rather, the December 31 document is and was our best effort to produce a set of carefully balanced compromises that we believed would meet the various needs of the political parties and still leave the society as a whole lot better off," he said.

He went on: "We reserved the right to issue our own assessments and recommendations, a step that we continue to consider and may well take in coming weeks."

We may expect new and more challenging proposals from Dr Haass; ones in which he will say what he and Professor O'Sullivan really think, rather than trying to satisfy all parties with a compromise.

He gave hints of what these new proposals may contain when he talked of the potential for the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site, mentioning a Troubles' museum in nearly the same breath.

We already know that he dropped discussion for the creation of a new Northern Ireland flag to be used on some occasions, when the local parties – particularly unionists – objected.

Any unionists watching the hearing online will have seen how badly their arguments are coming across in America.

Dr Haass criticised decisions to pull out of talks on the past, in the wake of the on-the-runs (OTRs) controversy. This was an implicit criticism of the UUP, which withdrew from talks altogether, and also of the DUP, which suspended discussion of the past until the judge-led enquiry on OTRs is finished – at the earliest.

The DUP rightly complains that no unionist, or victim of republican violence, was called to give evidence, but it was also significant that Dr Haass received no criticism from the assembled US politicians for his stance.

Instead, he was resisting pressure to come out in favour of a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane and say more about security force collusion.

Some of the Americans seemed ill-informed; one thought there were five counties in Northern Ireland, but none seemed aware of unionist arguments. That represents a long-term failure of communications.

The DUP backed Dr Haass' appointment to chair talks here, partly because, as special envoy, he had been critical of Sinn Fein and he strongly condemned terrorism worldwide.

He seemed the ideal American and some predicted that his affection for the Stars and Stripes would translate into support for daily displays of the Union flag in Belfast.

They failed to persuade him.

The two main unionist parties need to up their game. They haven't convinced Americans, like Dr Haass, who take a deep professional interest in our problems, and they are scarcely noticed by those who don't look so closely.

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