Will 2014 be about the future or the past?
How did the Northern Ireland Assembly mark the beginning of 2014? Sitting for the first time for this year on 13th January, the Assembly gave over practically all of the sitting day to arguing over the Haass talks.
This is precisely why Northern Ireland could not afford the Executive parties to fail to reach a deal in the closing days of 2013. That failure now makes it very likely that this year politics in Northern Ireland will be stuck on the debates over flags, parades and the past rather than moving on to a focus on delivering economic renewal.
Of course, it is still possible for the Executive parties to change this. If, as the UUP's Mike Nesbitt has said, the Haass document was 80-90% agreed, surely one more short, sharp push will do it. Although, this does raise the question of exactly how the UUP moved from its leader saying Haass was 80-90% agreed to his party Executive simply rejecting the document. Since when does 80-90% equal 0%?
Leaving aside the strange approach to mathematics adopted by the UUP, it is over to the Executive parties for that short, sharp push. From a NI21 perspective, three actions are urgently required. Firstly, the Executive should act on the 80-90% agreement in Haass. Bring forward legislation immediately to implement it. Secondly, the silly point-scoring between the Executive parties has to stop immediately. Northern Ireland needs the Executive parties to sit down now to hammer out the remaining 10-20% issues in Haass over which there is disagreement. Thirdly, the Executive should publicly commit to bringing agreement on the remaining issues to the Assembly by the end of March.
Why the end of March? This is European election year. Once election campaigning gets seriously underway, the partisan pressures on parties lessen the chance of reasonable compromise and a deal. We also need a deal in place before the usual tensions rear their head as summer approaches. Perhaps even more importantly, if we really want to see Northern Ireland move forward, can we really afford another year given over to the old tribal politics?
This is a year when the beginnings of economic recovery will hopefully take root in the UK. We in Northern Ireland need to be fully focussed on addressing this, rather than being stuck in the politics of the 1970s. It's also a year when, with the European elections, the UK's membership of the EU - vital to our economic opportunities - will be a subject of much debate. A Northern Ireland oriented towards future opportunities and growth needs to be fully involved in this debate.
Future or past? This is what hangs on the willingness of the Executive parties to successfully - and quickly - conclude the Haass process. The alternative is a Northern Ireland held back and stunted by continued tribal politics.
Belfast Telegraph Digital