Why the Haass talks matter and why they could not succeed

It is unclear how the North will undo the evolution of extremist tendencies, writes Sinéad O’Shea

Dr Richard Haass with Megan O’Sullivan, leaves the Stormont hotel in Belfast on December 31st, where all party talks failed to secure a deal. Photograph:  Paul Faith/PA

Dr Richard Haass with Megan O’Sullivan, leaves the Stormont hotel in Belfast on December 31st, where all party talks failed to secure a deal. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 15:11

It is just after 4am on New Year’s Eve, journalists in the Stormont Hotel in Belfast have started to tweet that the Northern Irish peace talks are failing.

At 5 am, it is confirmed; in a press conference that feels dark as the dawn, the chairman of the talks, Dr Richard Haass and his co-chair, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, announces that no settlement had been reached and they are returning to the US after months of effort.

The news line was that the deal, aimed at resolving contentious issues such as parades, flags and the legacy of the past.outstanding issues such as flags, had floundered because the two unionist parties had rejected it. The other three parties involved, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance had all been more accommodating.

After a week’s consideration, the DUP this week provided a short statement explaining that the proposals needed “more work” while the UUP said it was not “viable” or acceptable.

Many have rolled their eyes in response. “Who cares?” has been a standard response on both sides of the Border and elsewhere.

I think we should care. The news that there is still trouble in Northern Ireland raises universal questions regarding conflict resolution. This is not just a local row. Moreover, the psychological effects of this conflict urgently need addressing.

Obviously successes has been achieved. Here were two deeply entrenched sides, borne of two different cultures, backed by two different governments in a conflict that began centuries ago and that escalated to produce a war that claimed 3,500 lives. Thousands and thousands of others were affected by decades of bombs and killing.

The Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland and the peace it brought has been hailed as the most successful of it’s kind. It is seen across the world as a case study for other countries and regions emerging from conflict. Even the fact that the Haass talks were being conducted by local parties, rather than the British and Irish governments, represents a real achievement.

The Agreement arose from deep political sacrifice and compromise. The SDLP and the UUP had to cede power to the more extreme parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP.

For Sinn Féin and the DUP, the challenge has been to appease their more radical base. Arguably this has been less difficult for Sinn Féin. The conflict in Northern Ireland was economic in origin as Catholics were discriminated against. This has changed.

It is hard for unionists not to conceive of this as a loss in a zero sum game, especially for the working class Protestants centred in areas such as east Belfast. They are also keenly aware of the demographic change eroding their majority. They feel as if they are in decline. In many ways they are.

It is impossible to underestimate the psychological effect of lost power, the sense of lost prestige. It has made the tradition of conducting militaristic marches through Catholic areas and the right to fly the Union Jack on a daily basis all the more integral to the unionist sense of self.

Much of the Haass/O’Sullivan talks can be described as a set of psychological measures. Flags and marching have constituted two of three concerns.

The third aspect of the talks entails very psychological elements also; the reconciliation of the past. There are still missing bodies and many crimes are unsolved. A large proportion of the population remains deeply scarred by the conflict.

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