As charades go, the current attempts by our political leaders to continue with the Haass process, is up there with the best of them! The weekly leaders meetings seem to go relatively unnoticed by the wider public. But scepticism is growing both locally and internationally about our political leaders ability and willingness to reach a compromise on the most appropriate means of building a shared society. It’s almost eight weeks since Dr. Haass and Professor O’Sullivan left these shores, yet our leaders are continuing to fudge a process that for all intents and purposes is dead.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein have been very clear that there will be no re-negotiation of the existing document, while the Alliance have consistently stated their commitment to the ‘dealing with the past’ element. However, both Unionist parties and the Orange Order have noted their frustrations with all aspects of the document and are unable to provide any endorsement. So what’s the purpose of these gatherings, when we know the outcome? How many times can you flog a dead horse? One gets the impression that political unionism is simply trying to draw this process to a natural end, in the hope that a soft landing will prevent it from incurring the wrath of a disillusioned public. What is clear, is that nobody wants to be first to acknowledge that the process is over, and that they failed to do a deal.
In terms of the Hass document, it seems that the parties really only made progress on one of the issues. However, the old mantra that ‘nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed’ has meant that for some of the politicians, all of the proposals have been consigned to the bin. On the issue of parades, the proposals provide a way of managing our differences, as opposed to offering any long-term solution. Furthermore, the code of conduct that has been outlined is so weak that you could drive a coach and horses through it. Once again, responsibility would fall on the PSNI and wider criminal justice system to address the fall out over what behaviours were illegal or legal. As for the commission on identity, culture and tradition, that simply amounts to a series of Jerry Springer style conversations across Northern Ireland over two election cycles. One can imagine these events being dominated by those that can shout the loudest and show that they have been the most offended by other peoples expressions of culture. On the legacy of the past, the innovative proposals offer a platform to address the needs of those most affected by the conflict. However, it seems that a failure to make progress on the other issues has derailed any momentum on this one too.
It’s clear that the current political fudge is unsustainable, and that we are heading into a crisis of sorts. But what have been the consequences of failure? Firstly, our politicians have managed to interlock three of the most divisive and complex issues affecting the lives of people across society. No longer can we simply discuss the issues of ‘parades’ in isolation. Instead, any concessions or proposals aimed at addressing this issue must be weighted against ‘other’ people’s perspectives on flags and the past. In essence, each issue has toxified discussions about the other, and made it nearly impossible to make progress on any of them. The question for me is how do we decouple the three issues and recalibrate the processes required to resolve them?
Secondly, for the foreseeable future, the PSNI will continue to be the public referees for our political failures. They will hold the line and become the focal point for people’s anger and frustration because all we can do is manage our differences as opposed to seeking positive solutions. Thirdly, the political institutions must eventually be at risk of collapse from a number of varying sources. The train wreck that is welfare reform is approaching, and the lack of political goodwill and the inability for the two largest parties to agree on anything substantive means that they may not compromise on the content of any legislation. Furthermore, Sinn Fein’s electoral base may question the benefits of being in government with the DUP. The reality is that being in the Executive is of more advantage to the Unionists than Republicans, because the status quo appears to suit their own self-interests. Who’s to say that Sinn Fein won’t come under pressure to reflect on whether power sharing is actually delivering the tangible progress yearned by their electorate. Finally, the international community must be losing patience with our politicians and the Northern Ireland peace process. After the way in which Dr Haass and O’Sullivan were treated and kept hanging on, it is unlikely that anyone will be volunteering to help us with our intractable issues any time soon.
There have been calls from some quarters for the two governments to become more involved. Certainly, it was a mistake not to have them at the table during the talks, for history tells us that political unionism needs a British carrot or stick to deliver anything from a negotiating process. Alternatively, we will continue to politically drift and persist with the ‘acceptable level of policy inertia’. The most worrying element of all this, is that the silent majority have completely switched off and have become ambivalent to the entire process. There is no public outcry, no real criticism of the politicians, and no sense of the crisis that’s emerging on the horizon. It is a far cry from the ‘hand of history’.