The offer by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore to review unionist perceptions that the State did not do enough to counter IRA activities was a useful gesture, as part of an unfolding process of reconciliation. It fits neatly with this week’s talks, under the chairmanship of US special envoy Richard Haass, that will seek agreement with the Northern Ireland parties on a set of rules to deal with flags and parades, while setting out a framework for talks that will deal with the past.
Dr Haass has already written to party leaders in the North posing a series of questions and requesting confidentiality during the talks process. Further contact was made in New York last week when First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness visited the United States to promote an investment conference that will take place in Belfast in October. The success or otherwise of that conference is likely to be influenced by US perceptions of political stability and progress.
There have been worrying episodes of political grandstanding and point scoring in the past year, involving the DUP and Sinn Féin. They contributed to public unrest and localised rioting. In advance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Northern Ireland last June, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness proposed an all-party approach to parades, protests and flags and the reduction or removal of interface barriers by 2013, as important contributions to a united community. The US president was not impressed by the limited agenda; mentioned the segregation of education and housing as key determinants of distrust and social tension and urged young people to push their politicians towards a shared future. The fact that Dr Haass was called in to mediate on flags and parades suggests a lack of political determination at the highest level to implement the Good Friday Agreement.
In the present fraught climate, any advance would be welcome. As special US peace envoy, 10 years ago, Dr Haass impressed local politicians and his appointment to these talks has been positively received. Apart from establishing a set of rules dealing with flags and parades, he has been asked to propose a framework for discussions to deal with the past. It was in that context Mr Gilmore made the offer to review unionist perceptions that not enough was done by the State to counter IRA activities.
The Tánaiste insisted, however, that in terms of lives lost by security personnel and efforts made by successive governments to secure a resolution to the conflict, this State has an honourable record.
In an effort to address traditional antipathies, both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme will be commemorated in Dublin next year. Invitations will be issued to members of the British royal family and government and to political leaders on this island.