Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass talks: New year... but same old story

As the Richard Haass talks end in failure, commentator Malachi O'Doherty says the sectarian blame game once again sank the chance for progress

The final draft: A last draft of proposals on dealing with Northern Ireland's past released after failure on agreement
The final draft: A last draft of proposals on dealing with Northern Ireland's past released after failure on agreement

Dr Haass is too much of a diplomat to express exasperation, but he must be wondering if he has been taken for a ride.

He will be able to work out that the two main parties — Sinn Fein and the DUP — still each have a hand to play out of the wreckage of his talks process and he might be wondering if they feel more comfortable now than they would if they were selling a big compromise to their camps.

Sinn Fein can say that the republican vision is affirmed, that unionism has a laager mentality and still applies a veto that must be challenged. That describes a programme of action for it in the future which is well consistent with its past.

The DUP can say that it has finally put a halt to the erosion of British sovereignty and the flow of concessions to Sinn Fein. It has, in effect, killed the peace process. And a lot of unionists and loyalists will be happy with that.

So, each of the big factions has confirmed its sectarian vision of the nature of politics in Northern Ireland and each can approach its core base with further evidence that the other lot are the problem.

Expect to see the DUP slapping Jim Allister and the TUV about the head with the argument that they, not he, defended victims, parades and sovereignty against republican erosion of unionist rights.

Expect to see them fight the coming elections to local government and Europe on the same tired assertion that the Union is safe with them and that, where other parties folded in the face of Sinn Fein chicanery and international pressure, they alone stood firm and made their decision with reference only to what is good for the Union and the unionist people.

Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist leader, could be in difficulty.

He will have that clip played back to him over and over again, about how we were almost there, and he will be damned at the hustings as the unionist who would have caved in.

He may, however, be able to play it to his advantage if he can pitch himself as the unionist who would have done the deal.

The buzz on social media yesterday morning showed a lot of annoyance about the collapse of the talks.

So, all in all, though there is no deal on the past or flags and the Parades Commission is still in place, Peter Robinson has something to crow about to that section of his base which will relish the thought that it has poked Sinn Fein in the eye.

And republicans, despite this, will not be comporting themselves like the wounded and defeated. They won't see themselves as having been humiliated by the DUP. It is already clear what their view of their position is.

We saw through the latter stages of the talks that Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were tweeting jokes and trite sentiment.

Adams said there was an urgent vacancy for a de Klerk, a unionist equivalent of the South African leader who settled terms with Mandela.

Presumably Gerry saw himself as the Mandela, going into the talks with a warm heart and a generous spirit.

McGuinness smugly presented himself as the ‘old dog for the hard road’. All this was signalling that they were up for a deal, hungry for it, while disclosing nothing of what their terms were.

One might have been forgiven for assuming that they didn't have any; that the only obstacle to agreement was old-fashioned unionist bull-headedness, thick gom prods, so unlike the charming shinners.

And Sinn Fein can tell its base now that unionism is the whole of the problem in ‘the North’. That is how it is now and how it always was, and many will believe them.

When international opprobrium piles in, they can say that they weren't the ones to scupper a deal; they were all for it.

And they will hope for some traction for that argument in the United States where they will want to make it clear that it wasn't they who humiliated Drs Haass and O'Sullivan.

And this will be a strong argument in elections too. Sinn Fein won't expect to take votes from unionist parties but they will take them from the SDLP, presenting themselves as the people with the proper analysis of the problem, the party big enough to take the First Minister's seat from the DUP, a party which clearly isn't fit to hold it now.

Both of our polar parties can reap advantages from the failure of the talks, can indeed relish the outcome as confirming their vision, but they have paid a price for it. There is little point now in McGuinness and Robinson swanking the world stage as exemplars of heroic compromise and peace-making.

Much of Irish America will acc-ept the Sinn Fein analysis. Indeed there is some merit in it. Unionists usually can be relied on to take the blame for deadlock and division. They might have scored a point that their base will appreciate but it will be surprising if they sell it more widely as an achievement. And both parties are stuck for now with the old arrangements which they tried to change.

The lesson in that for them is where they can't agree, they should devolve to quangos and then let them sort it out.

Parties in the Executive should have had the sense not to take on issues which would drive them further apart from each other, unless they want to reinforce sectarian politics.

The useful precedent was established with policing in the Good Friday Agreement. They knew then that they would split on police reform so they handed it to Patten. In the same way, resolving the past was devolved to Eames/Bradley and the job of resolving parades was handed to the Parades Commission.

We already have answers to these problems if the Executive had only had the sense to butt out.

Instead, DUP ministers damned Parades Commission rulings as “shameful” and damaging. And the answer to the flags dispute was in the right of councils to take democratic decisions. That should have settled the matter, but the DUP sought to make political capital from the problem, felt called more to align itself with loyalist militants than even with the business community, which was appalled.

The parties made politics out of these issues to rattle each other and to rally the most fractious elements of their support bases. Sinn Fein played the same game by reasserting and celebrating the legitimacy of the IRA campaign.

They didn't seem to see, or want to see, that they were endangering the peace process, reversing the virtuous circle that had required them to be more accommodating and considerate of each other and grinding us back towards deepening sectarian tension.

But another part of their problem now is the increasing disillusionment within the electorate.

The Executive is no longer seen as a political partnership which struggles in good faith to reach agreement; it is seen as a cabal of incompetents who are now more committed to needling each other than to even getting work done.

The evidence is there now that the only deal they were really able to agree on was the big one at St Andrew’s in 2007, the deal that would provide them with power and position. Since then they have done what, exactly? Levied a tax on shopping bags? Anything else? Oh yes, the Titanic Quarter. Well, that's impressive. And how much has this cost?

But there is a huge list of failure, from the A5, the cross-border inter-connector, the rapid transit system for Belfast, the Maze Peace Centre and more.

These parties appear to have been using peace processing as an alternative to real politics. They can no longer go on taking credit for just getting on with each other when they don't. They have to do things and the evidence suggests they can't do very much. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP came out of militant minority political positions and expanded their support bases through selling themselves as parties that would make peace and bring stability and good government.

Each garners votes from people who have little or no interest in their sectarian abrasiveness and their symbols. With both of them now pitching their appeal to their militant cores, what will happen to the votes of the many who believed in peace processing and accommodation and in ending the old squabble? Some of those votes may go to smaller parties but hardly in numbers that will threaten the Big Two.

Yet the political context has been changed by the failure of the Haass talks and many will want to see practical expression of that change. With a deepening disaffection the argument for an Opposition at Stormont will be made again.

Disillusionment will breed an enthusiasm for change. But if we phone Richard Haass to look for his help, chances are he'll not be taking the call.

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