Haass proposals unlikely to find favour ahead of Northern Ireland elections
Talks leaders and Government convinced politicians lagging behind public opinion
Pessimism is a normal default position for many commentators in reference to Northern Ireland. And it is no different when it comes to the combined efforts of Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan to find a way forward on parades, flag-flying and how to contend with the Troubles legacy.
The former US special envoy and the Harvard professor talked and listened for the best part of six months to hundreds of groups, parties and individuals and read more than 600 written submissions before chairing intensive talks last month.
Those talks, involving the five parties who comprise the Stormont Executive, broke up in the early hours of New Year’s Eve without a deal. Since then, the parties have gone on their divergent paths.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP have, with reservations, given the Haass-O’Sullivan draft proposals (their seventh such paper) a thumbs-up. The two unionist parties and Alliance, says Haass, have not.
The DUP says it wants an all-party working group to flesh out at least some of the options contained in the proposals document we could call Haass 7. But the Ulster Unionists, after lengthy talks among its 100-member ruling executive, dismissed the Haass-O’Sullivan proposals as “unviable and unacceptable” and called on Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson for a fresh start.
The political atmosphere is charged with recrimination and the situation is, in short, a mess.
If that were not enough, Sinn Féin figures are criticising the unionists, claiming they are being “led by the nose” by the Orange Order and loyalist extremists. But unionists have rebuffed these suggestions. The SDLP is angry with the British government over an alleged hands-off approach, as well as the Ulster Unionists. The Ulster Unionists point accusatory fingers at the Alliance party. The British government, for its part, insists it is up to the parties to find a way forward – and to pay for any new arrangements in the event of such a pact – from current funds.
Haass says the unionist parties and Alliance must explain publicly why they cannot “endorse this agreement”.
It appears any sense of political momentum, the enabling energy behind a deal, is lost. In its place is the sound of a ticking clock counting down to local government and EU elections within six months when the parties go head
to head. Those elections, particularly on the unionist side, will be bitter contests with little sympathy shown.
All the while, Haass and O’Sullivan are keeping watch from the far side of the Atlantic and continue to insist theirs is a worthwhile and workable outline which has the backing of public opinion and would greatly benefit Northern Ireland.
O’Sullivan told The Irish Times that work on the Haass-O’Sullivan draft must continue because of “a lot that can be capitalised on”.
“There is momentum behind some of the ideas and there continues to be a very real need from the perspective of the people who live in Northern Ireland to have their politicians sort this out and find a way forward.”
Just before Christmas, Haass said: “I don’t think we are asking people to agree to unreasonable things.”
As an experienced diplomat, he is not given to forthright criticism of those with whom he is trying to reach an accord. But his comments perhaps point to a belief that, at times in negotiations, a chairman should make an appeal over the heads of the participants to the electorate beyond the conference room door.
Room for manoeuvre
Opinion poll evidence supports them in this.
An Ipsos-Mori poll, for the BBC in Belfast, appears to suggest there is sufficient common ground between unionist and nationalist positions on which to take an agreed stance concerning the three contentious areas which have stymied the Executive for years.
One senior Irish Government source says the public are ahead of the politicians and want to see progress now.
The Government knows no agreement has been reached among the Northern parties on difficult matters without British-Irish (and even US) intervention. The Government is also prepared to examine its own role in the handling of the Troubles as Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s speech to the British-Irish Association in England showed. Yet any Dublin intervention on the union flag, like parading, is much more problematic. Such issues touch raw loyalist nerves.
The British government has more room but has demonstrated little willingness to do anything other than offer encouragement .
Surprisingly, Haass and O’Sullivan achieved more progress than was thought likely on the third troublesome policy area, the past.
There are those who know how difficult this can be. Former Church of Ireland primate Lord Robin Eames, who chaired a previous attempt alongside Denis Bradley to secure agreement on the legacy of the Troubles, said: “I believe this Haass process has the opportunity . . . to put these things to bed.”
Many senior clergy agree. A joint statement from the leaders of the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, together with the Irish Council of Churches, has applauded the “strenuous and sincere efforts” to date.
They say responsibility to work for the common good remains, and they encourage the Executive “to keep going with the work that has begun so that an acceptable process may be developed”.
Quite so. But success may take divine as well as fresh political intervention.