Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

How sad that Northern Ireland needs US help for such silly squabbles

Unenviable task: Richard Haass

Here we go again. Mummy and daddy went off for the weekend and the teenage kids trashed the house. The car's written off, empty drink tins, torn curtains, cheap wine on the carpets, black eyes and bloody noses.

Welcome back, Mr Haass.

That a US diplomat has to be recruited to help us over parades and flags is an indication of our immaturity. That even after so many years of successful joint government by the DUP and Sinn Fein – the hardest nuts in the playground, after all – we still need grown up polities to help us find compromise. Did we not find that already?

Mr Haass's view that the majority of Americans think Northern Ireland is filed under 'solved' – for which he has been pilloried already – shouldn't come as a surprise. We have been trading on our peace process as a model of best practice since 1998.

Twenty years after the ceasefires, the fact that we are still dragging out the odds and ends of our own wee civil war should make us ashamed, not defiant. Real breaches of human rights are children being gassed in Syria – not the right to name a kids' park after a hunger striker or to march past a church.

We can't keep dragging out what are minor problems, demanding that the world sits up and pays attention.

While the majority of us want to get on with our lives, there is a minority which wants a replay of the civil war or at least to rub the 'other sides' noses in petty defeats. Loyalists mutter that, unlike Drumcree, this time they will 'win' over parades; Sinn Fein, one eye over their backs at the small but serious dissident gangs, stage irate pantomimes. Both are obsessed by so-called culture and attempts to control memory.

Make no mistake. Part of what is going on is a re-writing of what took place here for the last half-dozen decades. Both loyalism and republicanism, having carried out shootings and bombings and successfully scarified everyone day by day for three lifetimes, now want to control how the rest of us remember what happened. What happened to us. What was done. To us. By them.

The majority of us here know that we are not dealing with diametrical opposites. They are mirror images of each other. Pushing the envelope, needling, whining away in the background and insisting that, quite simply: "It's not fair!"

It is stropping thinly disguised as politics.

But the terrible truth is that – try to ignore them as we do – these people have a certain kind of negative power. They seem ludicrous until 'the other side' push us into a corner. And what seems like an embarrassing squabble about names and symbols ends up with rifles under the floorboards and plans to murder your neighbour.

But Haass has further blotted his copybook in our eyes by saying that he would like to look at housing and schools and the part they play in dividing us. Has he not got enough on his plate?

While it may be okay to sneer at the tattooed working class, our betters get very sniffy when the sectarian label is applied to them. Who is responsible for our system of neighbourly apartheid? The governing classes.

Just travel anywhere through Northern Ireland – Catholic schools and Protestant schools, Catholic neighbourhoods and Protestant neighbourhoods. But then look more carefully. Solicitors, dentists, accountants, sports clubs, grocers, butchers, doctors, undertakers – at every stage of life in our version of the 21st Century, we have cultural comforters who keep us on the right side of the fence. One for our lot and one for the others. Maybe not as obvious, maybe not as clear cut, but there all the same.

While the working classes may be shaking their fists across the divide, our middle classes just grin politely across it.

But make no real effort to cross it.

What we have at the moment is a low level Cold War.

And that is why – 20 years after 'peace' we still need diplomats. Because, well, they are versed in the dirty art of compromise and opposed to fetishising our own ideological purity and because sometimes it is the outsider who can see – and state – the obvious.

We should wish Mr Haass well but I think he has his work cut out. And for that we should be ashamed.

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