Failure of Haass talks – a far cry from ‘the hand of history’ – by Dr Jonny Byrne

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Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan.

Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan.


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’.

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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 think what is happening politically like in any learning curve is a plateau-ing off process. It seems to me that while the political consciousness has travelled quite a long way from even the pre-GFA days, there is a sort of time lag. I do believe people out there are reshaping their political values and re-thinking their relationships with the political parties. This process of appearing apathetic with politics isn’t accurate as we are poiltical animals by nature. So what is happening? I discount the apathy theory. There may be disengagement at an emotional and even an intellectual level with mainstream parties hence the illusion of disinterestedness. But I feel much more is happening. People are thinking about it all – that is their human nature kicking in – and when the time is right, they will possibly in different ways react changing in a small or even not so small way the very nature of the political framework and politcal ideologies that hang on it. That is history. That is evolution. Not necessarily for the better either! People are assimilating the complexity of what is happening around them. So to address the question is the Haass process a failure, I would argue that it is not. It may not have achieved a politcal formula for the the so-calld ‘peace process’ to trundle forward, but it has provided a position of where the parties and their ideological positions are. The question now is, are these positions perceived as useful or redundant? And how will they shape the path ahead? I have seen a number if instances recently where MLA’s of all partiies have agreed on an issue but the translation of that through the Assembly process has been perplexing to say the least. One example is the recent adjournment debate over the Downe Hospital where MLA’s queued up to say the Downe A&E should not have had its hours agreed by Mr Poots himself, yet a reversal of the decision of the South Eastern HSC Trust is still over the horizon. So why have parties agreed but still fail to deliver on policy? That is why people are literally stunned with repeated efforts. So as the process fails, people are taking stock. Of the parties and the system. It is complicated and rightly so asking our population to pass an informed verdict on this at the drop of a hat is not a good idea.
    What Haas has given us is the awareness that we have a flawed system of governance – now as a society we are calmer and more rational and as I said, we are ‘clucking’ on it. So in the meantime the train will indeed trundle on. There will be reasonable peace of sorts, but to be honest we still have not arrived at where we all want to be. At the moment some are heading for King’s Cross, while others are heading for Euston Street station. It is only when the boundaries of sectarianism break down more and people get tired of the bitterness that we will see real movement. There are real and major changes staking place. Business is much more non-sectarian, churches co-operate more, education is making leaps and bounds in cross-community outcomes, but there are still problems with a police force seen as conntroversial by some policing this awkward divide. And should the governments have been involved? Not really, this is about building a bottom-up process. We are where we are and we have to get to grips with that. Haass in no Merlin, he is just an ambassador doing his job probably to the best of his ability. The fact is, Norn Iron isn’t ready yet to step up to it. We don’t have the political stability yet or the confidence yet to get to the next level, but that will come in time. We must be patient. It is the journey that is important here, not the destination, It is the journey that is to shape us.

  2. Jonny, on two issues – flags and parades – the Haass process made limited progress. The Commission on Identity,Culture and Traditions was a confirmation of the deadlock. You know the work on parading was about changing the structure on adjudication. It may change nothing on the ground. An additional problem is the unionist negotiators were looking over their shoulders outside the room. They have become prisoners of a street-play and a very small crowd and part of the problem. Where Haass and O’Sullivan did make progress was in shaping a process on the past. The question is whether there is the political will to go there – not just the parties but the governments. Haass didn’t fail – those in the room did.

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