Voice of loyalism must be heard in peace dialogue
Richard Haass' hands will be full with parades, flags and the past when he lands in Belfast. Today his advance party hits town. Brian Rowan reports
When Dr Barbara Stephenson steps on to the Newtownards Road today, it's not just for a guided tour of the new Skainos Project.
The charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in London is being hosted by Methodist Minister Dr Gary Mason, who for years has made the East Belfast Mission available for all sorts of talking involving all sorts of people.
Some years ago, Mason was minister at the funeral service for David Ervine, when Gerry Adams stepped into his church to pay his respects in the company of the UVF leadership.
But Northern Ireland often moves one step forward and two back. And, in the here and now, it is moving in the wrong direction – lost in rows over flags, parades and the past. So, in the current poisoned atmosphere, Adams couldn't step on to the Newtownards Road today.
The issues still being fought over almost 20 years after ceasefires are the unfinished business of a long process; the things that mean the peace remains imperfect, incomplete.
So Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have had no choice but to send for international help.
And, soon, US diplomat Richard Haass will arrive to chair all-party talks on those matters that continue to embarrass and contradict the Northern Ireland peace narrative.
But how will loyalists fit into that process? How will their voices be heard?
Before Haass arrives, today's visit by Dr Stephenson will provide them with an opportunity to set out their stall.
Senior figures in the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando have been invited to meet her. Church, political and community figures will also be present.
"So this will be an opportunity for loyalists to be heard on a range of issues," Rev Mason said. "But also to hear how loyalism is viewed within an international context."
On Twitter accounts, you read the concerns of loyalists about how they will fit into the Haass dialogue; fears that they may be reduced to some bit-part role.
"The PUP will probably only get a slot to meet him," Mark Vinton wrote on Twitter this week, adding: "And not at the [talks] table."
Vinton is one of the loyalists invited to meet Dr Stephenson today; in a 90-minute slot given to this visit in east Belfast.
"Loyalists often say to me that republicans have been wined and dined on the international stage, as if they were the only constituency that delivered peace," Rev Mason added.
He said loyalists acknowledged the part republicans played, but also want to say "loudly and clearly" that they also "delivered peace on the ground".
"So, in the context of the Haass initiative, that constituency also must be part of any meaningful dialogue," the churchman said.
Loyalists also wonder what will happen when Haass reports with his recommendations; will they just be ignored?
In response to that thought, I wrote on Twitter: "He shouldn't leave until Robinson/McGuinness/ others accept proposals – otherwise waste of time/effort."
Vinton responded: "I fully agree he shouldn't go until he gets some real commitment, but, yet again, there's a short timeline."
This is a reference to the few months Haass will have between September and the end of the year to make big decisions and recommendations.
On the Parades Commission, does it stay or does it go? Whatever it is called, there will still be a need for a marching referee.
There will be no dramatic change to flag policy. And, on the past, chunks of the shelved Eames-Bradley report could come back into play.
But Haass will only work if others are prepared to work with him. That includes those who are the leaders in the loyalist community.
"Americans are often seen as understanding the republican narrative/story," Rev Mason said.
"They also need to understand the positive part loyalism has played in making the peace."