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Richard Haass may not be Harry Potter, but any progress will do


Richard Haass was US envoy to Northern Ireland in 2001-03 during George Bush's tenure as president

Richard Haass was US envoy to Northern Ireland in 2001-03 during George Bush's tenure as president

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Richard Haass was US envoy to Northern Ireland in 2001-03 during George Bush's tenure as president

It is often hard to believe that the peace process is two decades old, the Good Friday Agreement was forged 15 years ago and the power-sharing Executive, spawned by the St Andrews Agreement, has six years under its belt.

Yet, for all the historic firsts the process has served up – from Sinn Fein's acceptance of the consent principle, to Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams announcing their decision to enter government together, to Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen – deep divisions remain.

And, as evidenced by last December's street violence surrounding the City Hall flag protests and recent rioting linked the Orange Order's Ardoyne march, the road to permanent peace has many miles left to travel.

Enter Richard Haass, who jetted into Belfast last week a full decade after completing a 2001-3 stint as the White House's special envoy to Northern Ireland.

His previous tour was notable for the fact that, in October 2001, Sinn Fein asked the IRA to begin decommissioning its weapons – a request the IRA responded positively to within 24 hours. Whether Haass actually influenced those events, or whether the Sinn Fein and the IRA – aware that the 9/11 attacks had had a huge impact on Irish-American views on terrorism – acted of their own volition is open to debate.

This time, Haass has been handed a daunting to-do list and a tight schedule in which to operate. Between now and the end of December, when he is due to present his findings/recommendations, Haass and his team will tackle the issues of parading, flags and emblems and how best to deal with the legacy of the conflict.

But what will Richard Haass bring to the table? As president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, he has written extensively in recent times about America's own political gridlock.

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He has argued that the seemingly endless series of crises over the debt ceiling and budget issues has left Washington nearly dysfunctional, thus undermining the United States's ability to project its power and influence abroad.

But, according to the man who succeeded him in 2003 as the White House special envoy, Haass won't likely be lecturing anybody about anything in his new role.

Mitchell Reiss, George W Bush's Northern Ireland envoy from 2003 to 2007, said that, above all, Haass, or any other outsider who's been asked to help navigate the various peace process hurdles, has to have empathy with all who sit at the negotiating table.

"It doesn't mean that you necessarily support their position, but you need to understand it. You need to have patience. You need to be a good listener," said Reiss. "And, when the time is right, you need to be creative and think about solutions so that two plus two can equal more than four."

At the end of the day, there are no magic wands in peace-building. Haass may succeed in facilitating the mother of all breakthroughs by December. But, even if he doesn't, the odds are that some progress will be made.

And, at the end of the day, as the track-record of the peace process demonstrates, sometimes peace-building is all about baby steps.

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