Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sinn Fein ally Richard Haass was a dumb choice to chair Northern Ireland peace talks

Dr Richard Haass
Dr Richard Haass

Richard Haass made the long journey to Tipperary last Monday to receive the International Peace Award of the Tipperary Peace Convention, an organisation founded in 1984 by local people who wanted their town "known for peace".

They try hard to avoid contentiousness in their annual awards. Last year, it went to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani child whom the Taliban tried to murder for promoting girls' education.

Along the way, those honoured have included Bob Geldof, Barry McGuigan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Rudy Giuliani and the New York Fire Department and various leading lights in the charitable sector.

When it comes to Northern Ireland, the judges tread carefully. Recipients have included Gordon Wilson, who worked so hard for reconciliation after his daughter died in the 1987 Enniskillen massacre. There are also such peace-processors as Fr Alec Reid, Bill Clinton, Archbishop Eames, Edward Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith (yes, I think they were a frightful pair, but I don't live in Tipperary) and President and Mr McAleese.

Oh, and, of course, George Mitchell, the US special envoy who spent several gruelling years banging recalcitrant Northern Irish heads together.

Haass was Mitchell's successor as special envoy and soon showed himself vulnerable to the Sinn Fein mix of seduction, bamboozling and bullying.

President Bush ultimately grasped that his man was a patsy and replaced him with Mitchell Reiss, who stood up to everyone.

Disgusted by slow negotiations and, particularly, by Sinn Fein's foot-dragging on recognising the police, Reiss was infuriated by the IRA's Northern Bank robbery in December 2004 and the cover-up after the hideous murder of Robert McCartney.

In spite of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern protesting, Gerry Adams found himself banned from the White House on St Patrick's Day 2005, when President Bush welcomed the McCartney sisters.

It was telling that, even though Ted Kennedy refused to meet Adams, Haass, who was president of the Council of Foreign Relations, gave him a platform.

Haass was, therefore, a dumb choice for the Obama administration to send to chair all-party talks on tribally contentious issues, like flags, emblems, parades and the past.

Sinn Fein persuaded him to endorse their wish-list and the SDLP was too weak to resist.

You might think that proposals that were acceptable in their entirety only to nationalists would have made onlookers realise Haass had messed up comprehensively.

But so energetic was the Sinn Fein spin and all the guff about compromising in the name of peace that perfectly sane people have been babbling about the Haass formula being the basis for an agreement.

Unionists, as usual, have managed to make a pig's ear of public relations and have put themselves in the wrong.

In fairness to Haass, even he grasped that he had failed, got the hell out of Northern Ireland and has made it clear he won't be back.

Was he offered the award before negotiations broke down? Probably. The Tipperary Peace Convention made the best of it by saying that the Haass plan "could yet form the basis for a deal" and Haass waffled in his acceptance speech about the possibility of there being "other ways to approach these challenges".

Then, with supreme diplomatic ineptitude, at a time when the loyalist identity crisis is at danger level, he made two more suggestions from the Sinn Fein wish-list.

First, was to institutionalise further respect for Irish identity, "possibly including a larger, official role for the Irish language" – a green light for more pointless signage and translation.

And then he called for a Troubles museum, which had not been included in his failed blueprint, because it had "proved too controversial – but I am persuaded it is essential".

Well, I guess it is handy to have another agenda item in case politicians run out of things to fight to the death over.

Sinn Fein's special envoy has gone home now, with his dove of peace under his arm. Memo to the good people of Tipperary: next year, don't make a precipitate choice, or you might get another loser.

And, if you're stuck, consider Mitchell Reiss, on whose eagle-eyed watch Sinn Fein endorsed policing and justice, thus making it possible to restore devolution.

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