Haass talks: Close to an agreement


‘Nothing is possible without men, nothing lasts without institutions.” Agreed institutions that reflect and reconcile diversity and that incorporate checks and balances, protecting minorities and majorities alike, are the building blocks of lasting European integration. And Jean Monnet’s insight also provides the important rationale for both the bridge-building power sharing structures that are the product of the North’s peace process and the near-agreement that is emerging from the stalled Haass process.

The seventh draft of an agreement on parades, flags, and the past proposed by talks chairman Richard Haass and vice-chair, Meghan O’Sullivan, proposes a number of new such healing institutions – a historical investigations unit, a commission for information retrieval, an implementation and reconciliation group, an office for parades, an authority for public events adjudication, an oral history archive, a commission on identity culture and tradition ... the latter, admittedly, a temporary measure to keep discussions going on the as-yet irreconcilable differences over flags.

“Without a larger consensus,” the draft agreement says, “on the place of Britishness and Irishness – for which there must be a special and protected place alongside other identities, national or otherwise, represented within our society – we could not reach a common position on the flying of flags and the display of other emblems, which are in fact manifestations of these identities.”

The issue of identity and symbols has also bled into the parades debate on which a consensus is being held up by the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) refusal to sign up to a code of conduct on marches designed to minimise offence to others. This would, not unreasonably, commit march organisers not to allow “marks or music referring to proscribed organisations past or present” or “paramilitary-style clothing at all times during an event.” Here, as David Ford, of the Alliance Party points out the problem “was never about structures – the problem was behaviour.” Tolerating bad behaviour.

The DUP’s position has been described by one commentator with justice as “humouring the worst excesses of the loyal orders, whatever the cost”. The truth is that, unlike all the other parties who, with varying degrees of reservation, have endorsed the Haass package, the DUP finds it difficult to speak for or lead its constituency.

Although the party had previously committed itself to a code of conduct, and had engaged in prolonged talks with Sinn Féin on the issue, unlike the latter it can not guarantee that its support base will pay any attention to such commitments if entered into. The UVF and elements of the Orange Order will, it appears, continue to flaunt their bigotry – and expose the DUP’s dubious mandate.

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