Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Failure of Haass ensures muted celebration in US

The last time I watched the big parade in New York 11 years ago on St Patrick's Day, America was going to war over Iraq. Today, I am back standing on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue; no, not on a freebie like the Northern Ireland politicians in Washington, but per chance on a holiday which just happens to coincide with this uniquely Irish occasion.

Much has changed since that fateful St Patrick's Day of 2003. Then, the restaurants were pouring bottles of wine down the drains of New York in protest against the-then French president, Jacques Chirac's, opposition to attacking Iraq.

The St Patrick's Day parade was led solemnly and movingly by 350 firemen, each carrying the Stars and Stripes in memory of their colleagues who were lost on 9/11.

I remember the lines of television crews and news correspondents outside the United Nations general assembly building. The Belfast-born Sky News correspondent, Ian Woods, came over to chat to me. He was about to lead that evening's news with his report that an invasion of Iraq was imminent.

I looked inside and noted the emptiness of the famous assembly chamber on that sombre afternoon. There was no talking, no negotiating left to be done. The diplomatic delegations had gone. The war in Iraq was about to begin. Now, 11 years on, I am back in New York. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, the soldiers of the West have been and gone from Iraq, Saddam Hussein is long since dead, George Bush and Tony Blair (above) are no longer president and prime minister, but still the shadow of terror, from 9/11 to the Boston marathon massacre, hangs over America and the wider world.

Profoundly worrying as that reality remains, at least it has had a positive impact on how some Americans once viewed the problems of Northern Ireland.

The collection buckets passed around the bars and sidewalks of New York on St Patrick's Day may still fund Irish republican causes, but guns and bombs no longer.

The presence of members of the PSNI in today's Fifth Avenue parade is a small step in the right direction of demonstrating the cause of peace to more Irish-Americans – even though one tradition from this island dominates today's celebrations and the other is hardly to be seen.

Sadly, St Patrick's Day in New York has little hint of the quarter of a million Protestants – mainly Presbyterians – who immigrated more than two centuries ago.

Watching past parades along Fifth Avenue, as I have done, it is as if these people never existed, in spite of the fact that modern America is moulded in their flesh and blood and tens of millions can claim such ancestry.

The idea of police officers from Northern Ireland taking part, as they are doing today in New York, would have been unthinkable in the past.

The fact that they are there at all alongside officers from the Garda Siochana is evidence that times have changed here, even if our politicians visiting Washington are still on different wavelengths.

The welcome this year for the annual band from Stormont is somewhat muted, a sign that the Americans are annoyed at the way their man, Richard Haass, was treated in Belfast.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness should have Washington on a plate today, but they don't. The Haass experience has shown his American congressional contacts that Northern Ireland is locked in a stultifying, deadlocked partnership.

There is understandable frustration and disappointment that someone of the standing of Richard Haass did not conclude his talks successfully. Perhaps a smaller, less ambitious negotiation on flags – or on parades – could have achieved agreement.

With the benefit of hindsight, even the Americans may have cause to wonder if Dr Haass was asked to bite upon more far more than our politicians could chew.

A deep sense of frustration exists in Northern Ireland, as well as in Washington. No one seems to have any idea how to break the deadlock and, with elections every year until 2016, it would seem that, without a concerted effort on the part of Washington, London and Dublin, political life at Stormont will continue to stagnate.

The message which Washington might convey politely, but firmly to their visitors from across the Atlantic is that, if you and your parties continue to pursue incompatible and unrealistic goals and aspirations, then future St Patrick's Days in the White House will be more unwelcoming than this one.

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