Belfast Telegraph

Disdain of voters looks set to grow after Haass talks fiasco

By CLAIRE WILLIAMSON AND ADRIAN RUTHERFORD

Failure to reach agreement during talks to resolve Northern Ireland's problems could lead to further disillusionment among voters.

 

The fear of further public disenchantment comes after the five political parties failed to seal a deal on talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass on three divisive issues – flags, parades and the past.

Concerns have been raised that this latest setback may cause further damage to the already fragile relationship between the electorate and Stormont.

Patrick Corrigan from human rights group Amnesty International said: "People invested hope and expectation in the Haass process and naturally they would be extremely disappointed at the lack of deal at year end."

He added: "Politicians have a challenge and that is whether they can finish the job they have started – if they fail to do the job the people have elected them to do, then disillusionment is the inevitable consequence."

Co-chairman of Northern Ireland Conservatives Trevor Ringland said people felt let down.

He said: "A lot of people genuinely engaged in the process and hoped that the politicians would show some leadership around these issues and now they feel let down.

"But having said that, I think a lot of people are getting on with their lives despite the politics and we shouldn't lose focus on the fact that a lot of people are sorting out relationships on local levels and are building their businesses.

"What you are left with is a sense of that while we are achieving, it's nowhere near what we could achieve if we had some constructive political leadership around these matters where they were genuinely working together to bring out the best of the people of Northern Ireland."

Politics professor at Queen's University Belfast Richard Wilford said: "I don't think expectations within the wider electorate were high re Haass, so the outcomes are not overly damaging, certainly not to the stability of the devolved institutions, but those outcomes will do little to retrieve the rather dire attitudes harboured by the public towards Northern Ireland's political class."

Political commentator Robin Wilson said one major issue was that people didn't see a connection between what happens in Stormont and their daily lives.

"People have been becoming progressively more disillusioned since devolution was restored in 2007," he said. "There was an eight percentage point drop in the turnout in 2011 compared with the 2007 figure.

"It would be reasonable to assume that the people who are becoming most disillusioned most quickly are those who otherwise would tend not vote for DUP or Sinn Fein and would more likely vote for SDLP or UUP or Alliance – if they vote for anybody at all."

He continued: "Unemployment has nearly doubled since devolution was renewed in 2007 so nobody sees any strong connection between any events that happen in Stormont and their daily lives."

Lecturer and director of community engagement at University of Ulster Duncan Morrow said: "The issues discussed in the Haass process have emerged as really serious barriers."

He added: "If politicians can't do anything about these things the risk is that people will turn away: to apathy, cynicism and violence."

Director of Institute of Irish Studies at QUB Dominic Bryan said: "I think people are fed up, I think they will potentially get even more fed up as this drags on.

"The real questions will come the first time we have major incident over a parade, a flag or a commemoration."

But Peter Sheridan from Co-Operation Ireland defended the Haass process.

"It is easy when you are not in the heat of the discussions to be dismissive," he said.

"When they were in that room and in those hothouse talks, it wasn't that they weren't doing anything.

"Each party was trying to protect its own community, and unfortunately that is where our difficulties lie."

Where the five parties stand on proposals

DUP

DUP still has major issues on dealing with the past, in particular the failure to agree any definition of victimhood, but is supporting the proposal for a new working group to see how agreed elements of Haass can be taken forward.

Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein's team is recommending acceptance when the party's ard chom-hairle (executive) meets next Friday, even though leader Gerry Adams said lack of progress on the Irish language and the Maze/Long Kesh centre will mean difficulties in selling the package.

Ulster Unionists

Ulster Unionists leader Mike Nesbitt says the next step is up to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who commissioned the Richard Haass process, and is not recommending acceptance or rejection when he meets his party executive on Monday night.

SDLP

SDLP has given the proposals a general endorsement, although leader Alasdair McDonnell is critical of the lack of enforcement over a code of conduct for marchers, and backs a new working party to help implement any progress.

Alliance

Alliance has praised the advancement on dealing with the past, but is critical of the failure to make only limited progress on parades, and said the section on flags "is little more than kicking the can into another process".

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