They must have put up Chinese walls inside Stormont Castle since I was there last. The sudden collapse of Peter Robinson’s position over the Maze peace centre strongly suggests that the joint leaders haven’t even managed to have frank exchanges about the past, much less wrestled with how actually to deal with it. But the bigger problem stretches down the hill to streets below. DUP electoral dominance has been again exposed as offering no protection against unionist fragmentation and a stampede to the lowest common denominator. In a typically subtle piece in the Sunday Times, Newton Emerson (£) argues that Peter Robinson’s cancellation of the Maze project was “ a brilliant diversion. “ I’m not so sure. Rather than a device to forestall more loyalist rioters it arguably smacks of desperation and risks another surrender to anarchy, similar to the long weeks of the flags.
Sinn Fein may indeed be winding up loyalists with parades such as Castlederg as well as protecting their own flanks against dissidents’ co-opting the Cause. But it’s absurd to pin all the blame on Sinn Fein for goading the poor loyalists into riot. But Martin McGuinness’s statement that Robinson’s move was “ a mistake “ seems mild enough although a decision is needed over whether the rest of the project will go ahead.
It should be admitted that Sinn Fein could make life a whole lot more difficult . To reach equality of parading they could expand their own by a factor of 15 ( Emerson’s calculation not mine). The stats are certainly interesting. The Parades Commission reported that in the year ending March 2012:
the vast majority of contentious parades continued to be from the broad Unionist tradition, which accounted for 93%, up slightly from 2010-11. The proportion of contentious Nationalist parades fell to 6% .
When unionists think about the past particularly at commemoration time, they can’t abide Sinn Fein. When they look to the future they put up with them. The hard task is to relegate the past to heritage and history. Commitment to community stability requires confirmation of unionist acceptance of the republican tradition forged since 1970 which more than unionists abhor, and republican restraint in exercising it. That is a very tall order but a familiar one. All sides should be used to it by now.
How will Robinson’s U turn affect positioning for the Haass inquiry next month? An easing of the struggle for territory is essential. He may privately welcome outside pressure on the loyal orders to confirm the principle of negotiation over parades. Sinn Fein may be prepared to encourage more confessions of murder in exchange for a public inquiry into Finucane. But the problem as ever will be making deals stick. Finding the line to draw over the past as a whole seems unattainable. Like the Maze project, that should be left for another day.
Can Sinn Fein afford to acknowledge that they have already reached the high water mark of gains for the present and Unionism, that the new order of the State requires a new identity, still to be forged? The devil will be in the detail. But that essentially will be the task for Haass.
The behaviour of the first and deputy first ministers since last year disabuses us from any assumption that the parties and groups can now fly unaided. Another conference under mediation but with all parties present is clearly needed. At some level the two governments will be involved even if this time their participation is not central.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London