So much has changed – so much is the same – Brian Rowan on the continuing battles over flags, parades and the past

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Colum Eastwood SDLP, Brian Rowan, Jonny Byrne, Maire Braniff, Sara McDowell,  Lee Reynolds DUP, Winston Irvine PUP and Declan Kearney Sinn Fein.

Colum Eastwood SDLP, Brian Rowan, Jonny Byrne, Maire Braniff, Sara McDowell, Lee Reynolds DUP, Winston Irvine PUP and Declan Kearney Sinn Fein.


Away from all the headlines of the Haass talks a quieter conversation took place this week.

It had none of the heat and bad temper of that BBC studio exchange involving the DUP’s Jonathan Bell and Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein; that on camera shouting match in the company of Mark Carruthers on The View.

What we saw in that encounter was further evidence of a deteriorating relationship in a week in which Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of reneging on a Programme for Government agreement on the Maze/Long Kesh Peace Centre.

Kelly repeated the charge in that BBC interview and just a few hours after his party colleague Jim Gibney wrote the following in his weekly column in the Irish News: “Mr [Peter] Robinson needs to rein in those in his party who are lemming-like racing us all to the precipice.”

The headline read: Republicans doubt DUP power-sharing resolve.

Gibney doesn’t do solo runs. So, his article reflects a wider mood – the mood that both I and the editor of this website Eamonn Mallie have been writing about in recent weeks.

It goes to the top of the Executive – to the point that a red line has been reached and breached in the McGuinness/Robinson relationship.

The issue is the principle of partnership government; how it is meant to work and how it is not functioning, and this is the background play as Richard Haass and talks vice chair Meghan O’Sullivan continue their work, which is to try to achieve agreements on flags, parades and the past.

Haass says the goal is a consensus report that goes both broad and deep.

Those who have met him and O’Sullivan this week understand they are engaged with people who are read in and who know the detail of these subjects – the unfinished business of the peace process.

Bell and Kelly are part of the negotiations, and on Thursday in that television exchange the DUP junior minister spoke of Kelly’s involvement with the IRA making clear he saw both him and that organisation as victim makers.

The Castlederg republican commemoration continues to play out in a commentary on what has gone wrong – being presented by the DUP as part of the reason for the shelving of the peace centre plan.

Castlederg and commemoration were part of a much quieter conversation on Thursday – held inside the old Crumlin Road Jail building and hosted by the University of Ulster under the heading: Place or Past? Violence, Memory and Commemoration in the New Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney was there, Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order, the loyalist Winston Irvine and Parades Commission Chair Peter Osborne – all part of panels and an audience within which the GAA, the PSNI, Alliance, SDLP and the DUP were also represented.

I chaired the event and Eamonn Mallie was one of the speakers.

He said he was “fatigued-worn out by commemoration” – something he said seemed to him “to equal victory”.

Another of the contributors Johnston McMaster said he suspected “commemoration is much more about the present than the past”, and then Kearney said the following.

That on Castlederg all including Sinn Fein could have done more to address tensions – that it was time to reflect on and learn from that experience, and he argued that commemoration needed to be conducted on the basis of dignity, mutual respect and not giving offence.

He was not just talking about republicans but made clear that Sinn Fein was “up for” that discussion and process.

There was no shouting in the room or in a conversation that also addressed the fallout over flags and marching.

Peter Osborne gave the figures on parades – an increase in the number of marches and he challenged the suggestion of any attack on Orange culture.

Winston Irvine said he believed the statistics on marches suggested parades were being used to strengthen an identity seen in his community to be under threat.

He arrived at the event with his party’s latest document on legacy issues, including the thought:

“It is clear that if Northern Ireland is to move on then it must transcend traditional and divisive antagonisms otherwise the future will become little more than an extension of the past, with the same exclusivity and the same ingredients for conflict remaining in place.”

Mervyn Gibson made criticism both of the media and the Parades Commission, but when asked if the Orange Order had made any mistakes, he replied: “If truth be told, yes – particularly in the heat of the moment.”

This event produced a grown-up conversation on raw issues – completely separate from but relevant to the Haass process.

Its stage was a former battleground – a jail remembered in the early 90s for killings and a bitter and bloody struggle for segregation involving loyalists and republicans.

Today it is a shared space, yet walk outside its door down towards Clifton Street, Carrick Hill and Donegall Street and you arrive at a point of marching and protesting controversy.

So much in this place has changed, and yet so much is the same.

Can Haass and O’Sullivan make a difference?

They need the mood of the conversation inside Crumlin Road Jail – and not the heat of the studio standoff.

(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


  1. Sinn Fein can’t expect partnership at Stormont level to flow smoothly but systematically try to undermine it at local government level and on the streets. NI is a small place and the issues it created was always going to arrive at Stormont.

    • Hmmmm, the 42000 leaflets agitating an otherwise mis-informed community had nothing to do with it? I actually attended 1 of the BCC consultation meetings on flags – there where 3 people….. No doubt SF where poltically crass and insensitive over the flag: they certainly failed to anticpate BUT the responsibility for the destruction & damage lies squarely with the rioters & those that manipulated them.

      As oft stated, the battles today are by power of persuasion: if you cannot construct a reasonable, rational and logical politic or idelogy then your day is done because violence will never win.

  2. Spent the afternoon at the Haass talks where, after first all-party meeting, Gerry Kelly commented on last night’s television clash with Jonathan Bell calling it a “car crash”.
    The DUP representatives, including Bell, went from the talks to the protest camp at Twaddell Avenue – a move Jeffrey Donaldson described as “part of our on-going engagement”.
    Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan spoke to the media around four this afternoon, when Haass said he believed there was “a real chance to succeed” but stressed a real chance “is not a guarantee”.
    “This is not spin,” he continued. “If I was discouraged I would tell you.”
    O’Sullivan also described “a real sense of possibility”. Of the three issues – flags, parades and the past – she said the third “will be the hardest one to get our arms around”.
    Haass added: “The human side of it is enormous.”
    Side-stepping a question from the editor of this website Eamonn Mallie, Haass commented: “Words have real consequences.”

  3. For the DUP, parading & commemoration is often referred to as being deeply rooted in the Culture, in this sense many unionists compare it to the GAA- for Republicanism however, parades & commemorations are not claimed with the same fervency or frequency to be intrinsically intertwined with identity rather than simply what they are , a commemoration or parade. Furthermore the longer we move away from the provisional campaign and the conflict the less weight of importance the past carries when compared to the present and the message of what tomorrow ought to be, I don’t have to explain why younger generations are less concerned with the past versus the present.There is an opportunity here for Sinn Fein to show everyone (including younger voters, moderates and the entire Southern electorate) how open they are to leaving the past behind and focusing on the overall project at hand. Lay it out on the table and watch the DUP squirm to justify any rejection in the eyes of Richard Haas and international onlookers. I doubt we’ll see that happen but it would be nice.

  4. The DUP got the best negotiating deal from the GFA they could and have been trying to renegotiate/back pedal ever since. The departments of government at stormont which come under unionist control appear to be used by unionism to run some kind of old stormont pre gfa one party rule from within those structures. if they cant have the old regime the might try to have it in the departments they control. thus disenfranchising those who voted for equality and inclusion.its only a matter of time before the love in collapses because there is no real attempt by the unionist parties nor the loyal orders? nor the loyalist fringe to truly embrace a shared future .While they look to the past and plan a future where they can get more for their community all will eventually subside . embrace the future together or wither on the vine of sectarian head counts single issue agendas and promoting your own community at the expense of the wider society and a secure future for all our children.

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