Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass this process been a failure? Biggest problem not including the public

Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan pictured at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Pic Kelvin Boyes
Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan pictured at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Pic Kelvin Boyes

I'm sure many journalists have considered a pun this poor but have resisted due to shame, standards or professional pride. However, I’m a politician.

Whether we deem the Haass process to have been a success or failure depends on the criteria against which we judge it.

The most obvious is the objective of the talks; to achieve a cross party agreement on flags, parades and the past by Christmas 2013. Was that achieved? No. Therefore the talks were a failure.

Another measure against which to judge the Haass process is whether we are now in a better place than before the talks started. This is a bit less black and white.

On the one hand progress has been made in that these issues have been the subject of cross party talks with some degree of desire to find an agreed resolution. We have a 39 page document with proposals on which we can build on parades and the past, and a public process to be established on flags and emblems. So a success then?

Maybe. Arguably an opportunity has been lost to show the public that the Executive parties can go beyond self-interest and ‘two community’ thinking to come up with an agreement that is in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. A compromise that no one will be entirely happy with, but one which we can all see is another step forward.

Unfortunately the failure to reach an agreement has fed public cynicism with one person commenting to me on Twitter;

"Can’t help thinking Big 2 just took what they need for May election: DUP get to be no concession tough guys, SF get to blame grizzly unionists".

For these talks to have been a success in the sense of moving Northern Ireland forward we need the goodwill of the public and I am not sure that it is there.

And that for me has been the biggest failure of this process; the failure to have any effective mechanism to include citizens in the process. This is needed if we want the many diverse communities in Northern Ireland to come on board.

The Green Party has been calling for a formal mechanism for civic conversation from before the Haass process was mooted. A time bound process that brings politicians and other citizens together in dialogue to review, reform and refresh the Good Friday Agreement more than 15 years after its signing. And unlike St Andrews, Hillsborough and now Haass, any proposals must ultimately be endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland. The peace process belongs to the people, not just politicians, and if we wish to see meaningful progress the Executive parties need to realise that.

Haass has brought a set of proposals forward for discussion, but only when that discussion moves beyond closed doors meetings and into communities can it succeed.

It Haass to be done.