Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass talks: Why we're condemned to a path of perpetual frustration

Grand set-piece events like the Haass talks will never amount to anything while there's neither trust nor goodwill between the parties, writes Alex Kane

Hard going: Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan talk to journalists

All the parties had to do – and, really, it was all they had to do – was sign up to some sort of fudge, or form of words.

It would have allowed them to save face; to offer a little pre-New Year's hope to the increasingly disillusioned voters and non-voters here; and, most important of all, avoid the crushing embarrassment of sending Dr Haass and Professor O'Sullivan back home without anything to show for their efforts.

And please, please forget all those let-you-down-easy cliches from David Cameron, Theresa Villiers and even Haass himself about progress having been made on most areas, albeit not nearly enough to get the package over the line.

This was failure with a very big F: humiliation with a whopping great H.

I have been pessimistic since day one about this process, but even I believed that they would pull something out of the hat at the very last moment: maybe not all that big, but certainly enough to spare their collective blushes.

But no, we got nothing. The five Executive parties proved that they were incapable of sorting out their problems by themselves and equally incapable of sorting them out with the help of world-class diplomats.

Worse than that, they dragged them back from America just to rub their noses in the fact that they weren't able to reach a deal.

They fiddled around with seven drafts, teased the media with predictions of being "very close" to, or "80% to 90% likely" to reach agreement and then produced diddly squat. It was the very worst sort of soap opera.

The year 2013 was a dreadful one for local politics. The relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein is toxic: no love, no respect, no confidence and no willingness to accommodate on key issues.

The parties do their own thing in their own departments and play entirely to their own galleries.

They have proved incapable of making progress on transfer tests, welfare reform, social housing and a shared future.

They have proved similarly incapable of making progress on flags, parades, victims and the past.

The only response they have in common is their response to criticism: "It's better than it used to be and we won't allow anyone to drag us back to the bad old days, blah, blah, blah."

Back in 2007, the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiated an arrangement which would replace the uncertainty and "constructive ambiguity" of the UUP/SDLP arrange- ment. The problem is that they replaced "constructive ambiguity" with carve-up based on destructive clarity.

Yes, there were teething troubles and settling-in problems with Trimble and Mallon, but there was, at least, a sense that they trusted each other and wanted to move in the same direction.

That has never been the case with Paisley/Robinson/McGuinness.

Consequently, they never search for compromise; they simply find the easiest route to stalemate. Ironically, of course, the 'failure' to deliver on Haass has left them in their happy-enough-to-be-there default position-continuing stalemate.

So, what happens now and how much damage has been done?

Well, when the Assembly gets back to business next week, the parties will move full throttle into campaigning mode in preparation for the Euro and new super-council elections in May.

The DUP and Sinn Fein will want to consolidate their positions and will do nothing which requires offering any hostages to fortune.

And since those elections will be followed by a general election in 2015 and Assembly elections in 2016, it strikes me as unlikely that very much will happen (even less than we are used to) between now and then. Which means that there won't be much progress on the big-ticket problems, either.

A few commissions and working parties will be established, if only to convey the impression that something is being done. The DUP, in particular (although it will have an impact on their relationship with Sinn Fein), will be watching how the PUP and TUV do in May. If they show signs of progress, it will spook Robinson; and if they don't, then it will encourage him to keep doing much the same thing.

Turnout will also be interesting.

All the evidence would suggest that it will continue to fall and in falling will do more damage to the UUP/SDLP/Alliance than to the big two parties. That would suit the DUP and Sinn Fein very nicely.

But turnout will also be a key factor for NI21, which is clearly trying to brand itself as the new, genuinely post-conflict party. It really needs to set out a clear, credible blueprint for solving the problems that the other parties have singularly failed to solve. Time is not on its side, though, and if it doesn't make a breakthrough in May, it won't be making one in 2015, or 2016.

There is a lesson to be learned from Haass: stop kidding ourselves that these set-piece events are the best way of making progress. They aren't and the subsequent "deals" rarely work in practice.

Structures, foundations, scaffolding and blueprints don't actually matter a damn if there is neither trust nor goodwill between the parties. That's the real problem. And we must stop running away from it.

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