Haass’s modest proposals remain stuck while DUP calculates the electoral risks

Opinion: It is difficult to get a coherent position from Unionists on what exactly is bothering them

Peter Robinson with Martin McGuinness. But would he have sat down with him of his own volition? Photograph: Arthur Allison

Peter Robinson with Martin McGuinness. But would he have sat down with him of his own volition? Photograph: Arthur Allison


In mid-December a neighbour offered this opinion on the Haass talks: “You know there is absolutely no chance of that shower doing a deal.”

And then he launched into a pessimistic rant which showed absolutely no faith in any of the North’s leaders. It’s not a unique opinion to hear in Northern Ireland but maybe it would be useful for Northern politicians to be aware of such cynicism.

It’s just over a month since Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan quit these shores, leaving behind modest proposals for helping Northern Ireland to begin its escape from the stranglehold of parades, flags and the past. It’s all gone flat since then and that’s reflected in the aforementioned public scepticism.

While limited in its ambition, the Haass document contains useful ideas, particularly on the past. The proposals on parading are a bit of a fudge: the Parades Commission can be disbanded but, regardless of what body or bodies replace it, it’s still likely there will be a riot at or near Ardoyne in north Belfast next July Twelfth.

On flags there were some initial ambitious proposals such as an additional “neutral” Northern Ireland flag, and the tricolour possibly flying during, say, visits by President Michael D Higgins. Almost predictably, there was no agreement and finally the matter was kicked into touch with the proposed creation of the Commission on Identity, Culture, and Tradition. If established, it would have 18 months or so to come up with a way forward. Another fudge, of course, but at least there would be potential for some future progress.

There was meat on the bone when it came to the past. It was proposed to create a single Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into all past killings. An Independent Commission for Information Retrieval also would be established where perpetrators who gave information about killings would have limited immunity. It was also proposed to institute an Implementation and Reconciliation Group and a conflict archive.

The structures on the past primarily are designed to allow victims access information about how their loved ones were killed. Ultimately, whether they learn the truth depends on groups such as the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries and the British state helping provide that truth. The likelihood is that some will, some won’t, but at least architecture would be in place that would put pressure on all protagonists to deliver. With unionists contending the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch was a “midwife” at the birth of the Provisional IRA in 1969-1970, this would include the Irish Government.

Party leaders meeting

The five main party leaders have been meeting about once a week to discuss how to bring Haass forward. They met yesterday

and are due to meet again today at Stormont. But so far little seems to be moving. What is agreed is that the one politician who can kick-start Haass is the First Minister. And so far he’s not for shifting.

There are two schools of thought on what might happen. The first – and this very much is the minority view – is that Peter Robinson will play hot and cold for a while, before finally doing a deal on the document, or a slightly altered version, in time for him and Martin McGuinness to get a nice St Patrick’s Day reception in the White House from Barack Obama.

The second opinion is that there is absolutely no chance of Robinson signing off on Haass before the late summer or early autumn because he is so fearful the DUP could suffer in the European and local elections. “Suffer” is a relative word here because the DUP is not going to lose its single European seat although maybe a few council seats could be close calls in very fundamentalist areas if Robinson takes a punt on Haass.

But if elections are going to be the determinant for even minor progress then Northern Ireland politics could be stalled for a while to come, with Westminster and Assembly elections due respectively in 2015 and 2016. The British Labour shadow Northern Secretary Ivan Lewis caught it well with his warning that a couple of years of pending elections could lead to “timidity or political paralysis”.

Ian Paisley

It’s difficult to get a coherent expression of what is bothering unionists about Haass. There are complaints over language and disputes over what should comprise a code of conduct for parading. But beyond that no die-in-a-ditch issue has emerged that makes sense to the public or the pundits. There have been Stormont mutterings that some hardline elements within the DUP, sensing that Robinson has been weakened as leader, have been making it difficult for him to grasp Haass. If there are members of such a rump they haven’t yet shown the courage of their convictions. Another worry for him is how the Traditional Unionist Voice party, with its lone Assembly member Jim Allister, will fare in the May elections.

Which brings us to Eamonn Mallie’s recent BBC documentary on Ian Paisley. It’s hard to tell whether it did the Doc any good in terms of how history will regard him. The level of score-settling against his old lieutenant, Robinson, seemed petty and may have backfired. But there was one key element about the programme: there would be no powersharing deal without the say-so of Paisley. Robinson, no matter how much he aspired to power, couldn’t have led the DUP into running Stormont with Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin also at the helm.

Paisley, whatever his motives, had the confidence and the courage to bring his constituents and his DUP elected colleagues – some of them reluctantly – with him. In legacy terms, that contrasts starkly with the timidity over much more limited proposals now being exhibited by Robinson.

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