Richard Haass faces Northern political process going into reverse
Now up to parties to find a way though impasse
Artist’s impression of how the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze near Lisburn will look – will Sinn Fein now say “no Maze reconciliation centre, no overall Maze development” ?
Richard Haass arrives from the US to kickstart all-party talks on the North today. They are designed to resolve those most stubborn of issues – parades and protests, flags and emblems, and the past.
The political process still has momentum but at the moment it is one step forward and two steps backs – and that’s because of a deal reneged upon and because of parades and protests, flags and emblems, and the past.
What First Minister Peter Robinson calls “windbag commentators” have been talking up the scale of the political “crisis”. That seems to be overselling the state of political affairs but there’s no denying the relationship between the DUP leader and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is fraught. The steps from fraught to crisis aren’t many.
In New York last week Robinson and McGuinness, when selling Northern Ireland to businesspeople, decided not to allow the controversy over the Maze prison site to overshadow that mission. Issues around Robinson’s decision to withdraw support for a peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze near Lisburn would be addressed on home soil, not in the Big Apple, McGuinness made clear in New York. He said he was in problem-solving mode but McGuinness watchers will have detected a certain steely coldness to his words. Sinn Féin believes that Robinson reneged on a deal agreed in April to have the peace and reconciliation centre built on the Maze site.
Then it was all mutual “Martins” and “Peters” from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as they envisioned a multi-faceted complex at the Maze creating a highly ambitious 5,000 permanent and 2,000 construction jobs. But by the middle of last month under external and internal unionist pressure Robinson wrote a very long missive from Florida explaining why he could not support the reconciliation centre.
Part of the excuse was that republican summer parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, commemorating two IRA men who blew themselves up with their own bomb 40 years ago. That did cause ructions. But it seemed clear, however, that the concerted opposition to the Maze project from Protestant victims’ groups, from Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt and the Traditional Unionist Voice party, and consequently from some spooked members of his own DUP caused him to walk away from the Maze agreement.
That triggered some local media and observer analysis that Robinson had lost his nerve on the Maze, and that his retreat from the previously agreed reconciliation centre showed weakness and raised questions about his leadership.
Those assaults triggered the aforementioned “windbag commentators” response. In another letter from America for the Belfast Telegraph last week he insisted he had no intention of quitting politics and expressed confidence in the future of the North. Robinson even offered a nice line in pugnacious but wry self-reflective humour: “I have talked about the characteristics of some others, but what about myself? I keep my ear to the ground. I know there are some in the press who consider me abrasive and obstinate.
“My political opponents (and even some of my own colleagues) find me confrontational and inflexible. Perhaps they are right. Others are much less complimentary.
“Yet those ‘deficiencies’ are the ingredients that fashion an unqualified determination to secure my objectives and I am resolved that we shall complete the process we are engaged in.” So, Robinson after his long summer break asserts he is game for the fight and for staying around for a considerable time yet. Still, his unionist foes see vulnerability. But how will McGuinness, with a large dollop of advice from Gerry Adams, react? Republicans feel Robinson has rubbed their noses in the dirt and there is an appetite for a response in kind. This could include: no Maze reconciliation centre, no overall Maze development.
This has to be played out. Sinn Féin has always lived by the dictum that first “you manage your own constituency” and you don’t get too far ahead of your own people. Therefore, McGuinness may understand Robinson’s dilemma, but whether he will cut him any slack is another matter.
There is also the view that Robinson should have shown more courage and, to quote one former IRA prisoner, not be “dictated to by the TUV’s single Assembly member Jim Allister”. And all this after a long year of sectarian convulsion running from before last Christmas when the decision to limit the flying of the British flag over Belfast City Hall triggered loyalist disorder. That segued neatly into the summer marching season and more protests and trouble. Then the Castlederg parade.
And there Haass has it in a nutshell: flags, parades, and the past, and all the sectarian trauma that goes with them. Some task, but at least he comes with a “can-do” American vigour.
Parades and flags
There is a rather optimistic view that progress can be achieved on parades and flags but that the past will be very difficult. Some progress can be made based on the Eames-Bradley proposals but getting the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries, the police, the British government and MI5 to tell the truth could be too great a challenge.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s commitment that the Government would play its part by addressing unionist perceptions that the State did not do enough to frustrate the IRA may help.
Haass and the parties must make some headway. The North desperately needs a roadmap away from sectarian problems that are centuries old.
Realistically and ultimately that isn’t down to Haass – it’s up to the parties to forge a political and community way forward. But Haass can get things moving. And it is for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make any Haass-inspired deal work or at least get started ; but for that to happen they need to be getting on.
And right now they’re not.