We have devoted much of the last six months to helping the five parties that make up the Executive in Northern Ireland reach agreement on parades, flags, and contending with the past. The deadline, the end of the year, is upon us.
There is as yet no agreement and no certainty one will emerge. The divisions over the draft text are many and deep. This is not surprising, as political leaders can always find fault with a proposed text, both for what it says and what it does not. There will be words whose inclusion causes real concern for some parties — and words whose exclusion does the same.
But the reality is that no party in a diverse democracy can have all it wants. Compromise is essential. What matters is whether Northern Ireland would be better off with this agreement. We believe the answer to that question is yes — a resounding yes.
We are not in a position to go into the specifics of what is being negotiated. Confidentiality is as essential as it is difficult to maintain. However, some elements of the draft agreement — or misrepresentations of them — have come into the public domain.
Given the critical role the public has played in this process, we want to provide an overview of what is on the table, which if accepted would go a long way toward helping both individuals and the society as a whole contend with the legacy of the past and meet the challenges of the present and future.
The draft agreement has the most to offer in helping Northern Ireland address its difficult past. We attribute this, in large part, to the critical role victims have played in encouraging us all to think creatively, not just about their own needs, but also about the needs of society. The agreement places a high priority on the principle of choice — the notion that victims must be able to choose, wherever possible, how their cases will be handled.
This principle runs throughout provisions to provide quality services to victims in a sensitive and compassionate manner, and extends to the question of how cases regarding their lost loved ones are handled.
The proposals increase the chances that families could learn more about the specific circumstances around and reasons for the death of loved ones. But they would do so in a way that does not grant the perpetrators of violent acts amnesty for their actions.
Unlike in many other post-conflict societies, the agreement as written would not require that pursuit of greater information would come at the cost of potential prosecution. Without efforts like this, and others included in the draft, to meaningfully address the past, reconciliation across society will not take root.
The issue of flags has proven the most difficult to resolve. Flags are the most visible and emotive — but not necessarily only — representation of what many in Northern Ireland hold so dear: sovereignty, allegiance, and identity.
We are the first to admit that what is on the table falls far short of what is needed. Still, we believe that the follow-on effort called for could make a difference over time, in part because it provides a mechanism for the people of Northern Ireland to make their voices heard.
Finally, the agreement seeks to defuse the tension around parades, protests, and certain commemorations. While a critical component of Northern Ireland’s culture and history, these events are on occasion a flashpoint for unrest and an obstacle to good relations.
The agreement seeks to distinguish the overwhelming majority of parades, which pass off peacefully each year, from the small number that are contentious. It offers a new institutional architecture, prioritises local dialogue and mediation, and establishes a more transparent means of decision-making and oversight. We understand that improved structures alone cannot dispel the tensions around parades and protests; better relationships in the community are vital. But we are confident that what is in the draft agreement could create a much more co-operative process and context.
With all this at stake, we have decided to return to Belfast in a final effort to help Northern Ireland's political leaders reach agreement. We are not certain we will succeed, but we are certain that the consequences of either success or failure are so great that we must spare no effort to see that the talks end in consensus.
It will not, however, be the two of us who make this decision. We will do all we can, but the choice is up to the parties, guided by their understanding of what Northern Ireland’s people desire and deserve. No outsider can ever want agreement more than insiders do.
It is now more than 15 years since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement began Northern Ireland’s long path towards lasting peace. While substantial progress has been made, urgency must be the order of the day. The gains made over the past decade-and-a-half can be lost, and even if they are not, much more needs to happen before peace and a shared future are assured.
An agreement from these negotiations would not solve all the remaining problems, but it would dramatically increase the odds that Northern Ireland begins to live up to its potential. The opportunity should be seized while it still exists.