Northern Ireland taking failure of Haass talks with great equanimity

Opinion: DUP unable to deliver as it has little influence over loyalist paramilitaries

You have to admire the nerve of the Stormont Hotel negotiators in disappointing Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan. The fact that the pair had generously given of their time had been widely cited as a compelling reason for sufficient compromise on all sides. But the talks teams, or some of them, couldn't or wouldn't go the distance.

O’Sullivan may well feel particularly miffed. She has been presented throughout as a faithful sidekick rather than an equal partner. She is, in fact, a tough customer with considerable experience in hotter spots than south Belfast.

O'Sullivan was assistant to Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq following the toppling in 2003 of Saddam Hussein. Within a year, the CPA had handed power over to an interim Iraqi government. By this time, the Ba'ath party had been banned, the Iraqi army dismantled and most of the country's industries and natural resources, including oil resources, had been privatised.

The deal can hardly be said to have worked out well, other than for those who snapped up chunks of the country’s wealth at knockdown prices and skedaddled.


Nobody blamed the CPA for this, any more than Haass and O'Sullivan will be held responsible for what has happened in Belfast. That's one of the aspects of the Troubles which make the North more attractive to diplomats and such from faraway places than is often assumed.

If a modicum of success is achieved, the visiting dignitary will be showered with praise for having managed to knock the heads of the squabbling dolts together and will perhaps even figure as a heroic character in an embarrassingly overrated novel. But if everything goes pear-shaped, the blame will be heaped on the impossible northern Irish.

There was one Iraqi episode which may have floated uninvited into O’Sullivan’s mind in the past week. On March 1st, 2004, after wearisome negotiations, the Iraqi interim governing council, chivvied along by Bremer, O’Sullivan and others of the CPA, resolved a number of what had seemed intractable problems and agreed the text of a new constitution. A signing ceremony was set for March 5th. Hordes of media folk assembled and an orchestra played uplifting tunes – but none of the leading members of the interim council showed up.

The four intervening days had been marked by mass protests against parts of the proposed constitution, sizeable enough to convince negotiators this might not be the time for audacity. It was agreed that the final draft would be delayed until after elections. Here we go again, O'Sullivan may have observed sotto voce on Tuesday as the pale glow of a feeble sun announced a reluctant dawn in Belfast.

Of course, the North isn't Iraq. It is possible the Stormont institutions will eventually fall apart – but not on account of events at the Stormont Hotel, nor with comparably disastrous consequences. Evidence for this is to be found in the cynicism on the street with regard to the talks and the calm which has greeted their failure. Few believed the talks would succeed, nobody has panicked that they haven't. The main reason there was a fitful peace to begin with is that a substantial majority of the Catholic working class, the constituency which sustained the Provo war, has long ago reverted to its traditional position of rejecting violence to bring about a united Ireland.

Thus the increased support for Sinn Féin as it retreated from the objective which the IRA campaign had been designed to attain. And thus, too, the luxury of being able to make concessions more comfortably than was the case with the DUP.

As an instance: the proposed ban on parades involving emblems or uniforms associated with banned organisations would rule out commemorations such as sparked unionist rage at Castlederg last year. But SF leaders would be more than happy at having to desist from defending even ersatz displays of IRA militarism. The DUP, on the contrary, cannot afford to dilute the traditional politics it has proclaimed throughout the Troubles and has little influence on, much less control over, loyalist paramilitaries. It cannot agree and could not deliver a ban on UVF insignia at loyalist demonstrations.

So Sinn Féin comes out as the relative good guys; the DUP, which has never had a paramilitary wing, as, again, the villains of the piece. It must be galling. The difference doesn’t arise from DUP deficiencies but from SF leaders’ wish to discard a perspective already out of step with their electorate, if not with those who hold hard to the ideals in pursuit of which IRA chiefs had sent volunteers out to kill or be killed or to waste years of their lives in prisons.

On a more positive note, SF and the DUP published the text of the final document within 12 hours of the talks ending, in contrast to the sexual orientation strategy promised seven years ago of which we haven’t seen a syllable. Maybe they’ll get down to that now. Maybe not.