Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Hard sell on imperfect deal needed to avoid parade conflict in Northern Ireland

Uniform approach: Political parties are meeting again to try and defuse tensions ahead of the Twelfth
Uniform approach: Political parties are meeting again to try and defuse tensions ahead of the Twelfth

More talks on flags, parading and the past. It is hard not to be cynical, but one thing is clear – these issues will not be resolved without discussion and compromise. It is equally sure that the cost of leaving them to fester is very high, both in terms of policing, our economy and lives of young people, many of whom are voting with their feet and leaving Northern Ireland.

There hasn't been much fanfare so far, but on Tuesday the leaders of the five Executive parties agreed that they would hold the first of two three-day sessions starting next Wednesday, July 2.

All being well, there will be a second three-day session, beginning on Tuesday, July 8 and continuing until July 10 and possibly July 11.

It is hoped that sufficient progress can be made to defuse tension ahead of the Twelfth – high-point of the marching season. That is the hard deadline for progress and, on past performance, things will go down to the wire.

Flags, parading and the past were, of course, the three issues which were discussed in all-party talks chaired by Dr Richard Haass, the former US diplomat, last year.

The talks broke up without agreement shortly before the New Year, but a new draft document has been produced, breaking Haass's proposals down.

"It is basically Haass without the narrative and argument stripped out," a source close to the talks said. It has been drawn up by a team of civil servants from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who will act as a secretariat for the new talks.

These talks have been held back by disputes between nationalists, who want to proceed with the Haass proposals as a package, and unionists, who want to consider the issues individually, starting with parading.

The new document seems an uneasy compromise, breaking the proposals down into individual points, which must all eventually be worked through.

Dr Haass himself, who hasn't lost interest in the project, put the onus squarely on local political leaders when he accepted the Tipperary Peace award on Monday. He pointed out that the outline of an agreement is already known – it is contained in his proposals – but what is needed is leaders who are prepared to sell it to their followers.

"No agreement compares with some abstract ideal, something that reflects all get and no give," he said. He quoted Henry Kissinger's observation, in relation to the Ukraine, that any feasible solution must involve "not absolute satisfaction, but balanced dissatisfaction".

Dr Haass argued: "This truth requires of leaders that they explain to their frustrated supporters why what they see as imperfect, or flawed, is, in fact, in their best interests."

Are our politicians up for such a challenging leadership role? The DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships have both forged their political style in the oppositional politics, where the frustration and anger of followers was traditionally seen as valuable commodity which was to be respected and channelled into action – not dampened down.

If they follow that plan and refuse to sell a compromise, then the talks will fail and the logical outcome of such an approach – if sustained – is conflict.

The bare minimum needed is an agreed approach to the coming parades. That might involve a code of conduct for all those involved in parades and protests.

Parties also need to state collectively, as they have done individually, that this year the rulings of the Parades Commission must be obeyed.

We could hope for more, but even such a modest initiative could create a good atmosphere for tackling the other issues later.

Unified society is first step in beating terror

Are young British Muslims who travel to Syria – or even Iraq – to fight, as big a danger to our society as some claim? And, if they are, how do we deal with it? This is not the first time that people have volunteered to fight abroad. Small groups of British Muslims have taken part in conflicts in Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Libya without waging war at home afterwards.

Now Syria is the destination of choice. There the people we now call terrorists were called the resistance not so long ago.

At the Enniskillen G8, Britain and America were tempted to intervene to halt the massacres carried out by Assad's Baathist regime. They were thwarted by a combination of Russian pressure and war-weary public opinion. Is it that unexpected that individuals go to fight?

An older precedent is the Spanish Civil War, which saw volunteers going to fight on both sides, republican and fascist, in the 1930s.

Here in Northern Ireland, most volunteers, both Catholic and Protestant, were recruited by the Communist Party of Ireland and its allies.

When they returned, after military training and radicalisation, a few joined the IRA, but the vast majority didn't. There was no communist revolution.

Many volunteers, like George Orwell, had had enough. On his return, he wrote powerful critiques of totalitarianism in 1984 and Animal Farm.

Will today's volunteer jihadists be any different? We need to be aware of the danger that some may present, but we don't need to assume that all of them are going to become domestic terrorists.

Cressida Dick, the Met's head of specialist operations, is promoting the Channel programme, a Government scheme designed to stop vulnerable people being drawn into terrorism.

That could help. So could building a united society throughout Britain and here in Northern Ireland.

The multicultural approach pursued in Britain was in some ways reminiscent of the old Northern Ireland, where communities often lived separately and did not discuss their differences, or understand each other's perspectives. Here that led to mutual hostility and conflict.

We have heard in recent weeks how the old Stormont government farmed out care for orphans and unmarried mothers by funding separate institutions in each community.

That helped separate denominational power-blocks to grow up without overall consensus, or control.

Now we need to ensure that new cultural groups are part of an inclusive society, not left to live disconnected existences.

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