The power of prayer unlikely to be enough
Legacy of the past may be most difficult hurdle for Haass
As Richard Haass arrived in Belfast on Tuesday to chair this year’s make-or-break Orange-Green crisis talks, the Orange Order asked its members to pray for the success of the endeavour. This is greatly to be welcomed. It may be the last piece of positive thinking the order will inject into the process. Positivity isn’t their thing.
The Grand Lodge’s 10-point prayer petition was aimed not just at the brethren but at “all believing Christians”. Some of the items were unremarkable: “Pray that he may have the capacity to process several different and often conflicting viewpoints in a short time.” There will be little objection to that, probably. Then we will move on to the stuff on which God has to accept that She has limited options.
“Pray that there is recognition the Parades Commission is a failed entity . . . Pray that any attempt to deal with the past would be treated sensitively, would recognise the difference between the perpetrators of violence and the victims of violence . . . Pray for a sense of realism . . . Pray that progress may be achieved, at least to some degree.”
Much of the reaction in the circles in which some of us move has maintained the religious theme and taken the form, for example, of “Sweet Jesus”, “Dear God”, or “Holy Mary Mother of God save us all”. All right, strike that last one. No point being provocative at this early stage.
It is possible to take heart from the fact that logical solutions are available to two of the three conundrums with which the US diplomat will be grappling. The Loyal Orders might accept an arrangement whereby they commit themselves to obeying the rulings of a body replacing the Parades Commission on which they will have direct representation and unanimity or near unanimity will be required to give its decisions the force of law.
One key aspect of the flags dispute is that all who signed up to the Belfast Agreement accepted implicitly that Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom for as long as there is no majority for a united Ireland: that is to say, for as far into the future as it is possible to see.
Sinn Féin leaders insist that this isn’t so, that the agreement opens the way towards a united Ireland. A majority of their membership seems to have swallowed this whole. But it is not an analysis that would survive a reading of the text.
The logic of the agreement’s constitutional provisions is that the union flag should fly over buildings and installations representing the UK on as many days of the year as the flag-folk desire – over the Northern Ireland Office, for example. But the agreement guarantees equality between “the two communities”. So the union flag would not as of right flutter above buildings housing elements of the devolved administration: the Stormont Assembly building comes to mind, or Belfast City Hall. This could work.
But then there’s the past. Most commentary has been rooted in an assumption that the talks will be focused on the legacy of the Troubles, that the issues which arise will mainly concern estimations of the paramilitary campaigns. Did the two young men killed by their own bomb as they set out to blast a target in Castlederg “lay down their lives in the fight for Irish freedom”, as they themselves will have believed and Sinn Féin Assemblyman Barry McElduff explained on Radio Ulster just a few days before last month’s contentious march through the town? Or were they terrorists out to take the lives of their Protestants neighbours, as Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott maintained?
Even in the highly unlikely event of all those seated at the Haass table agreeing on a formula, or even a formula for agreeing to disagree, the issue would be far from resolved.
When did the past begin? 1968? 1921? The old reactionary Tim Healy is said once to have said that the trouble started when Strongbow landed and wouldn’t be over until Cromwell was let out of hell. His was something of an extreme view, but the point he was making stands. How you view the events of the past 40 years depends on your view of what went before.
If the Castlederg volunteers had no legitimacy, then neither did those who gave their lives in the War of Independence. Whether this claim to noble succession is justified – it isn’t – will make no difference to the talks. For Sinn Féin to accept or split the difference with the Unionist view would be to repudiate not just the Provo campaign but the Republican tradition itself. This is not going to happen.
No solution based on reconciling the Orange and the Green will work. Fortunately, there is a swathe of Northern opinion – polls suggest it currently runs at about 30 per cent – that does not adhere to Orangeism or Greenery. Of course, this isn’t reflected in political representation.
Sort that one out and we might be in business.