What if the Haass talks fail?

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Will Eames/ Bradley be resurrected?


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!


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About Author

Dr. Jonny Byrne, is currently a lecturer at the University of Ulster in the School of Criminology, politics and Social Policy He was awarded his PhD at the University of Ulster in 2011 - the research considered the issue of peace walls, segregation and public policy under the devolved institutions. Jonny is currently working on issues surrounding policing order policing, community safety and commemoration .


  1. I wonder how long it will be before someone suggests cantonisation as a solution. If you look at countries where there is major division, with regards to language for example, this is what has often happened. Belgium chose this route in the early 70s; this process continues in Switzerland with Jura a French speaking area becoming a new canton in 1979. Even the Dalton peace agreement which ended the Bosnian war is essentially the cantonisation of Bosnia.

    I wouldn’t favour it for N Ireland but have a sneaking suspicion it may just raise its head.

  2. Jonny – the talks are a huge ask especially if left to local decision making. I’ve written elsewhere that Haass cannot run this dialogue as a debating society. Yes, he should listen, but he should then decide the proposals for the next steps – here it is take it or leave it. Then we’ll find out who is serious and who is not. Before Haass there is a bigger conversation to take place. More on that later.

  3. Kevin Breslin on

    Firstly, we already have cantonisation in the places people can’t live and let live such as Belfast, it’s called the peace-walls … does anyone nationalist or unionist really want to institutionalise it? Secondly in terms of local representation, the issue may not be local enough, with regards to parades only residents groups and the regional local loyal lodges that are in conflict can sort that out, similarly with flags, people are going to have to accept how local government works now on a cross community basis or have undermining legislation imposed upon it across the board, with regards to the past I really think we need to keep in mind the future, the decline of groups like Spirit of Enniskillen are in contrast to the rise of victims groups being used for partisan causes. The past has been written, only the future can change.

  4. Glenn Bradley on

    Jonny, spot on.

    There are too many people circling the wagons, rallying the “troops” & poking with a provocative spear.

    They disregard that peace is made in exiting the wagon circle, leaving it’s comfort of security & reaching out to the “enemy”.

    They ignore that settlements and agreement are made in talking with the “enemy”

    Conflict mindsets seek only to propagate their own survival: ignorant of reality, wider society or the good of Nation, they’re ever destructive & malevolent.

    The Conflict Types are a-plenty and while local people can and do challenge them (this website being one platform), the reality is that their ego ignores and they pursue civil agitation wallowing in temporary popular power?

    Haass is a blunt tool that I hope will separate those who genuinely aspire to a peaceful multicultural & multi faith society embracing post conflict reconciliation (without conditions) from those who try, still, to deny historical reality, demographic change or population growth.

    We can all talk to ourselves and friends….


    to make change (and lasting peace) we must talk with our enemies or those who don’t share our viewpoint???

    This moment: create in partnership.

  5. John Loughran on

    Thought provoking piece Jonny. Few thoughts:

    Notwithstanding the efforts of OFMDFM which are laudable there are structural design-fault in the Haass process at 2 levels. One is he is not a US Special Envoy and secondly the identified issues alone cannot be resolved solely within the remit of the power sharing Executive.

    The conflict here was obviously not on an internal matter as acknowledged with the 3 stranded approach (internal, north/south, east/west) embedded within the Good Friday Agreement.

    As someone with a particular interest in legacy issues I fail to see what can be achieved if there is no buy-in to the process from the British and Irish governments from the outset.

    To simply reduce this phase of the peace process to a narrow Strand 1 focus misses the underlying issues that gave rise to conflict and stands in opposition of the GFA approach.

    Unless there is some positive choreography from the power-sharing Executive that starts to signal some commonality of approach on issues of parades, flags and the past in the coming weeks there is a real danger that the present context of street politics will actually set the tone and agenda for the Talks process.

    If that happens it will only further undermine confidence in the ability of the power-sharing Executive alone to resolve the outstanding issues of the peace process.

    The ramifications of that outcome will be have far-reaching consequences for us all!

  6. Stormont Assembly is a waste of time and money. very few of the promised reforms of the GFA have been implemented. The only viable option is joint sovreignty/governance. eurofree3.wordpress.com has a series of posts arguing the point. Enjoy!

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