In less than four weeks Dr. Richard Haass, acting independently of any government or institution will begin the unenviable task of chairing the OFMdFM conceived All-Party working group.
The group consisting of two nominees from OFMdFM, both Junior Ministers and two representatives from each of the Executive political parties will consider the contentious and emotionally sensitive issues associated with parades; flags, symbols and emblems, and related matters; and the past – already, the group numerically seems stacked in favour of the two dominant parties.
There is currently a growing sense of anticipation surrounding the arrival of Dr. Richard Haass, with people and institutions jockeying for inclusion in the next stage of our peace process. It seems that a day doesn’t go by where some political figure, community activist or media commentator references the importance of the forthcoming talks and the growing list of items on the agenda.
More worryingly, comparisons are beginning to be made with Senator George Mitchell, and his role in the negotiations, which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, this is a very different time, and this Chair doesn’t come with the backing and support of an American president, in the way Clinton reinforced Mitchell’s presence. This is a devolved administrations initiative, and their track record in resolving, not managing contentious issues is poor to say the least.
So what are the implications if the talks fail? In failure I mean not achieving collective agreement on tangible methods to deal with the most challenging elements of our contemporary peace and political processes. Because, if the outcome is a road map or some bland series of statements on ‘ways forward’, it simply won’t cut it for a public well versed in the art of political fudging.
For our society the failure of the All-Party Talks would constitute a final admission that some communities cannot live together, and are destined to participate in the annual facade of sectarian violence and protest. Statements and arguments would be underpinned by blame and counter-blame and the normalisation of ‘difference, hatred and segregation’ would be complete, with an expectation that the PSNI would continue to acts as referee’s in the absence of any political and communal settlement.
In terms of the relationship with the British and Irish governments, one has to question whether either administration would want to continue to provide economic packages or diplomatic support on the world stage. Inevitably, both countries would become tired of having to engage with the ‘Northern Ireland problem’ and instead, focus their energies on challenges closer to home.
Finally, our global standing as a model of good practice in conflict transformation and peace building would collapse like a house of cards. It would become apparent to all, that this is an intractable conflict, one in which the main protagonists, have neither the inclination nor appetite to compromise, seek resolution, and build a cohesive society.
One might ask ‘why the scepticism?’ Well, in the lead up to any form of negotiations or talks process one would expect a degree of choreography which lends support to the notion that agreement is a possibility and that all parties are entering into it with a spirit underpinned by respect and good will. However, take a minute to reflect on what has happened over the past eight months and ask yourself whether these episodes create the right ‘mood music’ in which agreement can be reached?
Initially we witnessed political Unionism supporting protests and in some cases encouraging civil disobedience around Belfast City Council’s decision to change its policy on the flying of the Union Flag.
There was also outrage during this period at Newry Council’s decision to name a public park after the former IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.
This was followed by extreme violence and public disorder on the Twelfth of July in response to determinations made by the NI Parades Commission. In excusably, a number of politicians attempted to deflect attention away from the violence and lay the blame squarely at the body responsible for making the parading decisions.
In effect, our political representatives were questioning legally binding decisions, and making their own assumptions as to what was good and bad law.
Furthermore, around this time, the DUP South Antrim MLA indicated that he ‘did not have a problem’ with the burning of a Tricolour on top of a bonfire.
In August we then had a particularly volatile period over the space of five days, which first saw the Lord of Mayor of Belfast being jostled and attacked while attending the opening of a public park in North Belfast.
This was then followed by an Anti-interment parade, which simply increased tensions and was viewed in some quarters as a commemoration to violence.
In response to the parade, Belfast City centre (an apparent shared space) bore witness to extreme violence, rioting and public disorder, which resulted in twenty-six police officers being injured.
The week concluded with a Republican commemoration parade in Castlederg, which was viewed by many as offensive, provocative and disregarded the memories of those murdered in the conflict.
More recently we have seen the arrest and subsequent charging of a DUP councillor for sending a grossly offensive communication. It did not go unnoticed the significant support the councillor received from senior party colleagues including a special advisor at the initial court hearing.
So, one can see why there is growing scepticism about how much progress can actually be made, when those participating hold such diametrically opposed positions, and have one eye on protecting their core base.
The reality is such, that the success or failure of the All-Party Talks will be determined not in Stormont, but on the ground where these sensitive issues are currently being played out.
What that means, is that by the end of this process, someone is going to have to tell one section of the community that they cannot finish their parade; or that they are not allowed to commemorate their dead; or the flag will not be going back up; or that prosecutions in historical cases will not be forthcoming.
These are the potential consequences of any outcome from these talks. Therefore the question is whether those tasked with seeking a solution to the outstanding issues can actually deliver the outcomes in the places where their impact would be felt most.
Whilst acknowledging this piece has been written in a somewhat pessimistic tone, it should be noted that failure is not an inevitable product of the All-Party Talks.
Our history suggests that we often think that we have fallen over the precipice into oblivion, when in fact; we have actually kept one last throw of the dice in reserve!