Waiting for help – Waiting for Haass

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The First Minister Peter Robinson MLA and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with Dr Richard Haass


Is it a case of won’t do or can’t do?

Why is this place stuck in another summer standoff over marching – still unable to walk in step and unable to talk things through?

The Twelfth scenes on the Woodvale Road were a disgrace; shameful, negative, predictable and a complete contradiction of the post-ceasefires narrative of peace.

It was back into the past; nowhere near what the present and the future are meant to be.

Since then, the storyline has been filled with the usual; ‘not our fault’, standoff, stalemate, stuck and struggling for explanation and answers.

Some will say and have said that the Parades Commission is to blame because of its decision to prevent the return leg of a Twelfth march that passes Ardoyne, but that is too easy.

Until the questions of flags, marching and cultural expression are answered, there will always be a need for a parading referee and there will always be controversial rulings; decisions that will hurt and anger one community and then another.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott did not use military support but mutual police aid from other UK forces.

It was about trying to keep some sense of normality within scenes that were anything but normal and certainly not consistent with the idea of new days and new ways.

In 2013 there is still no light at the end of this parading and protesting tunnel, and so this place waits for help and waits for Haass.

It also waits in hope.

The backdrop and background to a new talking initiative is filled with those recent scenes; the bricks, bottles and banners that were part of the Twelfth -the water cannon, plastic bullets and barking dogs that coloured in the picture.

Scratch our surface and scratch our skins and you will find many of the old problems; the things that make this peace unfinished and incomplete.

So, the next step is the arrival soon of US diplomat Richard Haass to chair all-party talks on flags, parading and the past; a dialogue that will have to reach far outside the frame of Stormont politics if it is to find answers.

“I welcome Haass, but I’m concerned about what the Executive will do with his recommendations,” PUP leader Billy Hutchinson told me in a recent conversation.

“Is it realistic to think that the Executive parties will accept those recommendations?” he asked, before answering his own question:

“I don’t think so.”

If this is the outcome, then we are no further forward.

These all-party talks have to make all-party agreements and then sell them to as many as possible.

It is what leadership is about.

The alternative is back to the past; back to some other spot next week or next month or next year – to another scene where marching stands still at some police line and with some protest literally a stone’s throw away.

Of course this Haass initiative is not just about north Belfast; not just about what walks or doesn’t walk there.

The challenge is about something much bigger; an overall marching template, agreements on flying flags (all flags where and when) and some framework within which the questions of the past begin to be answered.

Again to quote Billy Hutchinson we need to move from “horse trading” to “resolving issues”.

Doing that means everyone and every side will have to give.

No one, no side, is going to get everything it wants. This is a reality of negotiation.

On a recent visit to the Short Strand the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke of a lesson learned in his home city of Derry:

“When you show respect it brings results and rewards for everybody,” he said – “and the outcomes have to be outcomes where everybody can feel that they were rewarded as opposed to being penalised.”

He also spoke against any notion of using numbers to get your way:

“The republican community in Derry could have ended Orange marches ten years ago,” he said – “could have ended Apprentice Boys parades 10 years ago.

“We took a conscious decision that we weren’t interested in that, that we wanted to bring about a scenario where people had the opportunity to have their culture recognised and respected,” Martin McGuinness said.

He knows, as we all know, the numbers game is no way forward – not in Derry and not on the Woodvale Road.

These issues need something more thinking and thoughtful than that.

Talking at all the levels of leadership can begin to move us from the mind-set of cultural war and closer to a cultural peace.

It can’t always be about who got what.

It has to be about everybody getting something, and it can’t always be about blame and fault.

The Parades Commission, the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State are easy targets for those unable or unwilling to make the next steps and decisions in this process.

Haass will be here soon bringing with him outside thinking and ideas.

He can mould the clay, but only when he knows what shape the leaders of this place – political, community, church, republican and loyalist – want to make.

We can have something looking into the past or something that looks up the road towards something different and at something that challenges us all.

Which is it to be?

To that question, there is only one answer.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. Perhaps Mr Haas could propose that we follow the US system of flag flying. People are encouraged to fly the flag outside their own homes or in their own gardens or on their loved ones’ graves on certain days of the year. Local authorities are responsible for putting up flags in public areas and taking them down after a designated period. If this practice could be adopted as a starting point, the consultations would focus on agreeing council policies to ensure that both loyalist and republican applications are treated fairly.

    And what about showing some respect for the flag? – it shouldn’t drag on
    the ground or be allowed to become faded and tatty. Indeed most American ‘flag wavers’ go so far as to bring the flag inside if rain is forecast…

    • Our problem is we have too many who still think and believe, and are allowed to believe, that they are the local authority.

      • I think you hit the nail on the head there Brian, would the UVF flags still be up on the Holywood and Belmont Roads if there wasn’t a perception that ‘connected’ people had put them up?…

        • This twitter is new to me but its great fun. I’ve been vomiting my way through all the political stuff. I’m just off now to clean off all the sick now and then I’ll be back for more. I don’t think I’ll be commenting much as there’s nothing new to say, but I’ll keep looking in anyway, it’s a form of anorexia

  2. Good points from Hazeleva. Yes, we need fresh thinking on the route forward out of the summer sectarian morass that Brian ‘flegs’ up – excuse the pun. Even though I work in the media, I do believe that sociologically there is a dynamic ongoing of political narcissism which feeds strongly into this political equation exacerbated by the media itself dwelling on the societal divisions. It is all too often to put it bluntly cheap news! Relatively easy to report on as the drama is inherent in the piece. We all know the plot. To move the unrest to a healthier climate I believe we need a responsible media that does not offer positive reinforcement to the extremes of thinking causing the conflict. Instead the media needs to find other interesting stuff to report. But as the media is changing with the traditional print media under pressure from the digital revolution, there is a pressure to revert to the old sensational style to sell papers on the shelves. The government therefore has to create a carrot to induce the media to report sparingly on the Troubles. I know some will be howling from the rooftops that this interferes with democracy and free press – but just look at where we are! Northern Ireland has not undergone a process of political evolution as in the UK with the unfolding ideologies of liberalism, conservatism and socialism.social democracy. Instead it has been locked into its own parochial dialectic of Orange and Green and can’t move on. Haass has a difficult job in hand. He needs our full support and I wish him all the very best. George Mitchell said, peace will not be achieved unless we change our mindsets. Haas needs to build on this, and that is the reason he in not rushing in during the hot season. He is a professional diplomat. He knows what he is doing. Question is, do we?

  3. Until the questions of flags , marching and cultural expression are answered…

    The Union Flag is down outside our City Hall.

    The RUC/RIR and all the symbols attached are gone.

    The Orange men cannot march past a row of shops on the Crumlin Road.

    A kids park is named after a Provo.

    What sacrifices or concessions has the republican community made in relation to their cultural expression?

    Sorry, maybe its me. I’m a dinosaur, a Ballygobackward thinker. Yes we should call the park at Stormont the ” Michael Stone Playpark”, not the Mo Mowlam park.

    • gweedo prophet on

      The compromise on the city hall was that the union flag would be flown on designated days – it’s not your city hall and wanting a flag up 365 days a year harks back to a time that no longer exists.

      The RUC was internationally recognised by human rights organisations as unfit for purpose and reformed. There’s still a police service for Northern Ireland it just has a new name.

      Orange men cannot match through a community where they causes offence without prior negotiation. You must have (conveniently) missed the homes along the route. Again the desire for the Orange to march where they want, when they want harks back to a time that no longer exists.

      I don’t know if you’re right about being a dinosaur. You just want things to go back to a time and a stage that perfectly suited you. That’s understandable – if completely untenable.

  4. johnhowcroft on

    Whilst as a society, it was always going to be a difficult journey to navigate between that chasm of deep and painful memory and the far horizon of exuberant hope;

    nevertheless it is towards hope and opportunity that we must set our moral-compass to navigate.

    • John – there is much going on in the present that is a read back into the past – and people who were part of that past should know better. Haass has a huge task, I write today it can only work if people are prepared to work with him. The next steps are important, because the wrong step could take us down roads we don’t want to go.

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