Haass knows outside involvement is key to agreement in North
Former diplomat is well skilled in messy, protracted business of peace making
US diplomat Richard Haass with Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan, speaking to the media at Stormont Hotel in Belfast, where he is chairing negotiations dealing with contentious flags, parades and the region’s troubled past. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan have history on their side when it comes to breakthrough deals. “Outside” involvement has been central to any significant political development in Northern Ireland history since the fall of the old majority-rule Stormont.
The two governments, the US, the EU and a range of international figures from Scandinavia to South Africa have, at various stages, helped the Northern parties do what they have never done alone – agree. No doubt that is why Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness invited Haass, a former US special envoy under president George W Bush, to return to Belfast to help them confront three policy areas which have proved intractable for the Stormont Executive – flags, parades and legacy issues arising from the Troubles.
As academics, Haass and O’Sullivan know the lessons of Northern Ireland’s recent history. But as skilled negotiators and, in Haass’s case as a diplomat, they also know how influential outsiders can be in doing deals in Northern Ireland.
The British and Irish governments shepherded the power-sharing accord at Sunningdale in 1973, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Downing Street declaration in 2003, the subsequent Framework Documents and the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
As co-guarantors of that breakthrough agreement, the two governments, with US support, have retained a central role in fostering greater co-operation in the North. This was most vividly illustrated when they intervened at length to conclude a deal allowing the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010 – the key issue which brought down the old Stormont in 1972.
When Haass was last in Northern Ireland 10 years ago, one of his foremost challenges was to encourage Sinn Féin participation in the new policing dispensation. That eventually happened in 2007, long after Haass had left the US state department for the council on foreign relations, a non-party think-tank which he leads. As someone with experience in the Middle East and southern Asia, Haass must know that peace-building and deal-making can be a messy and complicated business.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement was indeed a breakthrough – but it was not, and was never claimed to be, a total triumph. The deal paved the way for the form of governance Northern Ireland now has, involving roles for both London and Dublin. But what that deal could not fix, it fudged.
It smoothed over the issue of paramilitary weapons decommissioning, it did not deal with policing – opting instead to leave that to the Patten Commission – and it did not deal with “the past”. Since then, these have been addressed piecemeal and often at an agonisingly slow pace. However, progress has been cumulative and Northern Ireland is transformed in a manner even the most starry-eyed would have found breath-taking 20 years ago when the ceasefires were being negotiated.