Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Richard Haass to discover the right answers to issues

America’s special envoy will have no shortage of advice when he arrives in Belfast next month. But political will may be in shorter supply, writes Robin Wilson

Richard Haass
Richard Haass

The sectarian violence which disfigured Belfast, again, last week will have left many throwing up their hands in despair. It would be easy to suggest that the US envoy, Richard Haass, has an impossible task in addressing the symptoms of this still-visceral divide — flags, parades, dealing with the past and the inability, or unwillingness, of ethnic politicians to see them from anyone else's point of view.

Yet, the answers have been, well, flagged in each case. So let's start with flags — and by recognising that the Union flag is rarely flown in other UK devolved jurisdictions.

In England, the only people who fly it in the street, outside of ceremonial occasions, are neo-fascists like the English Defence League.

In the Belfast Agreement, mutually antagonistic sectarian politicians belatedly recognised that pluralist devolution was the only show in town.

In a democracy, symbols must be equally inoffensive to all citizens. And the Assembly established by the agreement agreed, with minimum fuss, to introduce a neutral, flax-flowers logo.

So the flags solution: top Parliament Buildings all year with the same emblem used inside and have local authorities develop their own, well, local emblems to be used for all their branding, any flag included.

On to parades. Assembly is a basic human right, recognised in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and it is also recognised that this extends to the right to demonstrate.

So is freedom of expression (Article 10), but that doesn't mean one can legitimately shout “Fire” in a crowded room. Like other convention rights, the right in Article 11 is thus immediately qualified by the restrictions which can legitimately be placed upon it, including “the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

Such conflicts of rights should be arbitrated by impartial public bodies and, ultimately, the courts. Even if some disagree with the outcome, they can grudgingly accept the process it was arrived at.

So, the parades solution: replace the vague and contestable criterion in the 1998 Public Processions Act, with which the Parades Commission has to work — the potential impact of a parade on “relationships within the community” — by a human-rights approach, the thrust of the prior Quigley and Ashdown reports.

Let the courts, up to and including the European Court of Human Rights, deal with appeals. And, politicians, keep schtum.

Finally, dealing with the past. This should begin and end with what psychiatrists call the “time collapse” victims face, as they suffer their trauma as if it were yesterday.

Individual survivors need to be able to address their unexpurgated trauma by telling their stories and receiving public recognition.

And an independent, non-partisan commission is required to assess the behaviour of all the organisations embroiled in the conflict — state, as well as non-state — the standard of the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

This would not aim to impose a single “official” view of the past but, as Michael Ignatieff put it in his analysis of former Yugoslavia, reduce the scope for permissible lies.

So, the dealing-with-the-past solution: first, create a “living museum” of victims' stories, professionally curated, which would collect oral (and photographic) histories and collate and cohere existing archives.

Secondly, establish an independent “commission of historical clarification”, as recommended to the Eames-Bradley group by the Community Relations Council.

Comprising expert historians and social scientists — rather than hugely-expensive lawyers — such a commission would draw on the “raw” (in both senses) material of the victims' stories to keep its work real.

Mr Haass has solutions — however unpalatable they may be to sectarians and paramilitaries with vested interests in opposing them. His real problem is whether anyone in London or Dublin wants to be responsible for making them happen.

Robin Wilson is a policy analyst and commentator

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