If all this fails blame parties, not Richard Haass the honest broker
Published 19/12/2013 | 10:30
This is the testing time. Over the next few days our politicians face a formidable and self-imposed challenge as they attempt to grapple with Richard Haass's proposals on the flags, parading and the past.
In a sense, though, these aren't Dr Haass's proposals at all, he is just the mediator. From everything that has been leaked about them, his ideas are firmly based on previous studies. The proposals on the past, to take one example, are broadly similar a report issued in 2009 by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley.
The only thing missing is the Eames-Bradley proposal for a £12,000 recognition payment for each family who had a member killed in the Troubles. That was widely rejected because it would have treated all the bereaved equally, whether their loved ones had been involved in a terrorist group or were complete bystanders.
As a result, Dr Haass has left that bit out. He tweaked the rest, including a two-stage legacy commission, in the light of what the parties have said to him and the 600-plus submissions sent to his website. He asked the parties about whether and how a new Northern Ireland flag should be designed because a lot of people wrote in and suggested it. This isn't a sign of a personal agenda on Dr Haass's part and it isn't rocket science either.
He is only making these suggestions and asking the parties to decide on them because he was invited by the First and Deputy First Minister to help them through a logjam. He is a mediator. As such, it is his job to listen carefully, ask hard questions and absorb some flak.
That is why all the talk of blood-spitting, steam coming out of ears and politicians choking with outrage needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
At best it is gamesmanship, at worst it is a sign that they cannot collectively deliver. If this thing fails it will be down to the parties, and not Dr Haass. He will return to his think tank and a lucrative, influential career.
Our politicians, on the other hand, will be left in a political mess with a reputation for intransigence which will tarnish the image of our whole society.
Yet to listen yesterday to Gregory Campbell, the DUP MP for East Londonderry, you would think that it was Dr Haass, and perhaps Prime Minister David Cameron into the bargain, who was on trial, and that he, Mr Campbell, was the examiner.
"Consensus in the talks is desirable, but would be impossible to achieve if proposals re-emerge that are viewed within the unionist community as diluting the very essence of Britishness as Northern Ireland seeks to strengthen its position within the UK, not weaken it," Mr Campbell told Mr Cameron.
He showed flawed logic. Northern Ireland as a whole is not trying to strengthen its position within the UK – that may be a DUP aim, but it is not shared by its Sinn Fein partners in government. His own leader Peter Robinson claims to have handled things so well that our position in the UK is now stronger than ever before. His imperative is to maintain this stability, but the price of nationalist buy-in is respect for the Irish identity.
The present stability is largely built on previous reforms which Mr Campbell resisted unsuccessfully.
The Good Friday Agreement established that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland could only be changed by a majority vote here and produced the paramilitary ceasefires. Chris Patten's policing plan produced a police service with wide cross-community backing.
Both the Agreement and Patten reforms were bitter pills for many unionists to swallow, and Mr Campbell was one of their strongest opponents. They would never have been passed if his support was required. He presented them in terms of concessions to republicanism and of loss to his own position and ethos. Yet we can now see that they played a part in drawing Sinn Fein into the political process and stabilising Northern Ireland within the UK.
The DUP has built itself into our largest political party in the peaceful atmosphere which followed. It is the same with these proposals. Reducing flag-flying days on civic buildings to designated days only is difficult for the unionist parties. It would also be difficult for nationalist parties because it would involve the Union flag flying on councils they control.
Yet, there is no alternative compromise in sight. If it isn't accepted – and that seems likely – then each council will take its own decision on when or whether to fly the flag. Since nationalist representation at local government level is rising, thwarting an overall agreement probably means that the Union flag will fly less frequently.
Agreement on the past looks more likely but we have already paid a heavy price for failing to engage with previous proposals. When the entire Eames-Bradley paper was rejected without negotiation on the back of a wave of unionist indignation at the recognition payment, it may have felt like victory, but there was a cost. Then the British Government was prepared to meet the £300m bill of implementing change, £340m at today's prices.
Now, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said that it is primarily up to the Executive to find the money if it wants to set up new bodies.
Over the next few days the big parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – need to hear that they will have popular support in making any compromises necessary to achieve stability.
There is an onus on the public to let them know, but also on the smaller parties – the UUP and SDLP – to be team players in this instance. Elections are coming and the bigger parties need to know that their rivals will not portray compromise and pragmatism as weakness or try to capitalise at the polls by taking a harder line.
And the governments, as well as the US and Europe, need to speak with a united voice in favour of agreement. If Dublin and London show a common approach, past experience shows that they will strengthen the resolve of the parties.
London may also need to soften Ms Villiers' line on leaving us to pay for everything ourselves. Investing in stability here would produce long-term dividends for Westminster.