When leaders follow and followers lead

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


In the waiting for Haass we are watching the crisis build.

We can see it at the political level – in the fallout from the DUP u-turn on the Maze/Long Kesh project.

Then inside the police there are the issues of fatigue, stress and numbers creating an image of an elastic band being stretched close to its snapping point – and then there is the violent street play; seen on the stages where parades and protests clash.

The US Diplomat Richard Haass has been given what many believe is an impossible task; to chair all-party talks seeking agreements on flags, parades and the past.

This is the unfinished business of the peace process – the issues that ask the hardest questions.

In the gap, the police are being left to hold the line. Indeed some would argue too many lines at too high a price.

It is a cop-out at the level of political and community leadership, and there is a mood now being expressed within the police that doing their best is never good enough for some.

“The political and societal inadequacy/vacuum is being spuriously filled by an unfair focus on police,” one senior officer told me.

“We need to get this parades stuff sorted along with the other unfinished business,” he added.

He is right, of course, but Haass doesn’t have a magic wand and his talks won’t work if there is a debating society approach.

As we observe, we see a situation is which leaders are following and followers are leading.

It is a consequence of playing to a mood and a crowd – the story of the tail wagging the dog.

A few days ago, as a response to the new DUP position on the Maze/Long Kesh project, Sinn Fein’s former publicity director Danny Morrison used his twitter account to pose the following question:

“What was that formula in the peace process to which everyone subscribed?

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he continued.

What is happening is making a mockery of joined-up or partnership politics – damaging credibility to put it mildly.

Things are being agreed and then unilaterally disagreed, and in the mess it is the PSNI and the Parades Commission who are carrying the can for that political and community failure.

The senior officer who argues this stuff needs sorted makes sense, but is there the will elsewhere.

Shared space doesn’t mean doing what you want – whether in Castlederg, Belfast or elsewhere; whether Orange or Green.

So Haass needs to produce a take-it-or-leave-it position at the end of the upcoming talks.

It can’t be another of those ‘I want or we want negotiations’, and something else needs to change – leaders need to lead.


(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. Barry Fennell on

    It is easy to forget where we have come from but it is very clear that much more is required to complete the journey to proper peace. The situation at present is both worrying and unacceptable. Political leadership has been found wanting and very much at odds with the spirit, mood and willingness of pre GFA. Perhaps the international element parted the stage too early. What we need right now is accountable, direct and open joined up leadership not adversarial bickering and sectarian mind games, posturing and petty politics.
    What is needed is meaningful dialogue. Dialogue not just with meaning but product and actions. A conversation process that reflects a partnership of equality, respect, and dignity where the focus is on the needs and wants us all. This dialogue should focus on where people see themselves standing in their lives and bringing us to a place we have yet to reach – the time is now and Haas has a mighty job on his hands pulling us there.

    • Barry – was out on the ground in north Belfast earlier today. There are too many people out on the streets. The mood described to me as raw – the tension and hatred obvious. Haass can’t do this on his own – and among politicians here there is not the will. People seem to have forgotten the horrors of this place and the value of the peace – albeit imperfect and incomplete. They need to wake up and wise up before it’s too late. And just one final thought, there are people in both communities who should know better who are making the mess and playing in it.

  2. So nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This is, of course, utter tosh. Brian Rowan more or less acknowledges this when he says ‘this is the unfinished business of the peace process.’ Why is Richard Haass coming – its because a lot was left at the time of the GFA unagreed. So the institutions where put in place before everything was agreed. The truth is many things WERE agreed before everything was agreed!!!

  3. Glenn Bradley on

    Some try blame the GFA (Belfast Agreement) blind to the reality that a
    failure to embrace ground truth politics & deliver for constituents, post GFA,
    largely created the disconnect.

    Elements of Loyalism promoted politically, ignorant,media-wallowing goons over sensible, politically savvy, tacticians?

    Elements of Loyalism engaged in internecine violence that tore communities apart rather then building street level up interdependent political alliances?

    Elements of Loyalism invested solely in Band Forums: the fife, drum & promotion of a warped mythology regarding the past rather then engaging in community service.

    Seriously, how many times must history repeat? How many times have elements within Loyalism challenged the rule of law? How many times have elements stood toe to toe against the State (Army & Police) blaming them?

    How many times did the growing realization that the only thing being achieved was the destruction of own community: loss of investment opportunity, actual infrastructure damage, the loss of young people (to jails or abroad) & damage to Unionism’s cause or image overseas take place before a change of tact came about?

    Some within Loyalism recognize the points above however their voices are drown in the populism of bigger flag waving. Those diligent, quiet, calculated leaders are the real future of working class Loyalism.

    Similarly, mainstream Republicanism is engaged in it’s own internal wrangling with anti-peace elements that has made the promotion of Irish-Gael-Celt culture a political weapon to the detriment of British-Irish culture when in reality the promotion of equality for one should not lessen or hamper the other.

    Today, on all sides, there is a minority, absolute extreme viewpoint exploiting the street play. Some are mature, incapable of evolving from a mindset of conflict while others not born during the Troubles feel they missed something and that there is glory in violence. All those mindsets have forgotten the reality of conflict: loss, pain & suffering. They’re all anti-peace process.

    Yet, some mainstream parties are marching to this extreme pulse. Some, fearful of losing electoral power are embracing populism, and engaging in the politic of bigger flag waving. Rather than have the courage to lead in partnership to bust myths of the past; eradicate propaganda and rise to a wider context they take two steps back. I believe this is wrong, in the main, because that extreme pulse did not (largely) vote for these mainstream parties originally. In similar vain, parties like the DUP secured a growing mandate largely from the suburbs. Their vote increased because people where stating: “embrace partnership politics, evolve and deliver for all in society”. The DUP would be folly to forget this electoral reality.

    Haass is not the ‘silver bullet’ however a short, sharp refocus of minds will do no harm, and his forthright methods will mean all are under equal scrutiny of intent. That backed by international oversight is welcome.

    Finally, I have written elsewhere on eamonnmallie.com regarding lasting legacy. In same vain, here, now, is the moment. Our reward comes from what we think, say & do in each breath this day.

    • Barry Fennell on

      Glenn, there are and will always be the extreme elements on our mainstream political and attitidunial spectrum willing to exploit circumstances, feelings and fears. The collective will of pre GFA has seemingly vanished as we have descended into our trenches of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is no more evident than in the Sinn Fein/DUP partnership where practically every political development in the last year especially MLK has driven both parties further apart – both not even now bothering to mask the contempt which they feel for each other – is worrying. I don’t think this links to what is being played out at street and community level but it certainly doesn’t help when political representatives are unable to work together. We should expect despite the behaviour and inactions of our representatives to be able to work effectively and cooperatively for good government, to promote peace and prosperity, deal with communal issues, pass legislation – after all they are obliged under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to do just this.
      Definitely what we have is imperfect and incomplete and I agree with you that the real challenge right now is for our representatives to truly lead in partnership and to demonstrate genuine inspiration and willingness for change. If only we could follow those who persisted with change and hope rather than interference and enmity. Richard Haass will come here to tackle our myriad of complex and divisive issues – he cannot do it alone. Addressing issues such as parading, flags, symbols, emblems and relationships to make the imperfect peace more resilient will be challenging but not insurmountable – let’s make it possible and ‘wise up’.

      • Glenn Bradley on


        Thank you for your comments. I agree.

        Specific to MLK, in July, Eamonn Mallie met with an informal representative of former or serving Regular Army Soldiers; RUC; Prison Officers & PSNI. Not one had a dissenting voice against MLK, indeed the consensus was “yes, lets create & be involved”. Barney and Eamonn have written at length on this topic elsewhere on the site.

        As Barney states the tail is wagging the dog: the bending to temporary populism.

  4. DergValley VictimsVoice on

    Not so simple as ‘Orange and Green’ when it comes to parades and parading.
    An Orange Order or AOH parade is a cultural event.
    A parade commemorating dead terrorists – republican or loyalist – is not a cultural event. It is a glorification of terrorists and therefore a glorification of terrorism.
    To allow such evetns to take place effectively normalises and therefore sanitises terrorist activity.
    That is wrong because it encourages a new generation to shoot their neighbours in the back, Just because they wear the uniform of a police officer, or are ‘the other side’.
    We must learn the lessons of the past, otherwise we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.
    Our children deserve better.

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