Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

After disastrous 15 months in Northern Ireland, parties should renew 'vows' of the Good Friday Agreement

Missed: David Ervine

US diplomat Richard Haass was right to set realistic expectations for the task of chairing the panel of parties negotiating to resolve "lingering divisive issues" in the peace process.

It has been a disastrous 15 months in Northern Ireland, with flag protests, riots and sectarian incidents reminiscent of the worst years of the Troubles.

The economic and reputational cost has been significant and inter-party relations are strained to the point of paralysis.

By coincidence, Alastair Campbell was in Belfast and Dublin to promote his Irish Diaries, with high-profile launches bringing the drama of his 10 years in the peace process back into focus.

Tony Blair's controversial and colourful director of communications and strategy was generous in his praise of the contribution of then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who attended the Dublin launch and contributed a foreword.

The Dublin event was a memorable affair, hosted by Miriam O'Callaghan, who interviewed the author and invited questions from the floor. Dublin's own master of spin, PJ Mara, made an impassioned tribute to a blushing Ahern seated beside him.

Fifteen years on the past lingers like a ghost in Northern Ireland.

On the same day, I was invited to address a reconciliation forum in Dublin Castle. Delegates – drawn from civil society and community organisations – bemoaned the moribund political situation and searched for ways to counter sectarian tensions.

All agreed that a vacuum had formed after the untimely death of PUP leader David Ervine, leaving a significant cohort of loyalism rudderless and unrepresented. Many despaired of the capacity of politicians to lead in a way that would transcend their own tribe.

My own experience of politicians in Northern Ireland is that they are masterful in advocating their own fixed positions, but notoriously poor at reaching out to understand the other side.

A view was expressed that the power-sharing arrangements only serve to perpetuate the sectarian divide, leaving no room for progressive and reforming voices to be heard.

And it is the case that the Executive was framed specifically to suit the post-conflict situation and that it is a strange and limited democratic construct.

The old quarrel is just beneath the surface at all times; wounds barely healed. The political status quo is based on tribal allegiance, rather than economics, or social policy platforms. Normal politics has not taken hold in a meaningful way to allow a diversity of opinions.

Most children are still educated in segregated schools. There is an opening for a new radical party to emerge, which could harness the longed-for desire for a totally fresh start.

Although honouring those who died in the conflict is understandable, tit-for-tat commemorations, or events that honour bombers, are not helpful in fostering reconciliation.

My own view is that, 15 years on, much has been achieved, albeit slowly. But it took almost 10 years to implement key aspects of the Agreement, including a functioning Executive, police reform, demilitarisation and an end to illegal armies. So perhaps people should count from 2008, rather than 1998, when assessing progress.

One forgets that the DUP, now in pole position, was not part of the agreement. On the contrary, they were rejectionists and came late to the party.

Perhaps what is needed now is for all the parties to renew with generosity the "vows" of the original agreement to help us over the final hurdles.

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