Back to table in Northern Ireland in advance of marching season


Prompted by the Irish and British Governments, intensive discussions are due to resume between the Northern Ireland political parties on issues involving flags and emblems, parades and ways of dealing with a murderous past. The hope is that some measure of agreement can be reached so that rioting that erupted in Belfast last July over a parading dispute can be avoided. Public support for such an accommodation can be found in the four thousand concerned citizens who marched against sectarianism and racism in the city last weekend.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has been particularly active in urging the political parties to deal with outstanding issues, including the treatment of unresolved killings. While Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin have signalled their willingness to revisit proposals made in that regard by US diplomat Richard Haass, however, the UUP has indicated it will not discuss legacy issues until the outcome of a House of Commons review of “on the runs” becomes known.

The treatment of unsolved killings is the most difficult, outstanding issue. Some months ago, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers antagonised republicans when she suggested any new process should have a proportionate focus on the wrongdoings of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, rather than concentrate on the activities of the police and British security forces. Since then, the Council or Europe has urged the British Government to conclude investigations into eight killings involving the security forces. Outgoing PSNI chief Constable Matt Baggott has advocated the establishment of an independent agency to deal with legacy issues on the grounds that they are “debilitating and toxic to confidence”.

It would represent a significant advance if an interim agreement could be reached on parading issues and the display of flags and emblems. The emotional freight they carry represents the most immediate threat to law and order and to inter-community relations. A resolution of legacy issues is likely to be slow and complex and is expected to require the passage of legislation through the Dáil and Westminster. As the Tánaiste acknowledged in Belfast this week, securing agreement between the Northern Ireland parties tends to involve an incremental process.

The fact that five parties have agreed to reopen negotiations is, of itself, encouraging. With local and European elections out of the way, a window of opportunity exists for accommodations to be reached before the marching season develops. Signs of limited progress exist. Investment in “shared education” projects, involving Protestant and Catholic pupils in a divided education system, is about to get underway. If parity of esteem – a central objective of the Belfast Agreement – is to be realised, however, what Peter Robinson described as “a benign form of apartheid” will have to be addressed.