A spirited discussion about the issues on the Haass agenda

One of the recurring themes of tonight’s Haass/O’Sullivan panel discussion is that we often ask the wrong questions.

Ask not if there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but why there’s no tunnel!

P4C panel againIt was the third panel event that Platform for Change have hosted this year. Trevor Ringland chaired (opening with a quote from Blackadder and A Long Peace by Messrs Fealty, Ringland and Steven) and the up-front contributions came from:

  • Lesley Carroll (Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church; member of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past);
  • Dominic Bryan (Institute of Irish Studies, QUB);
  • Peter Osborne (Parades Commission);
  • Brandon Hamber (INCORE, University of Ulster);
  • Maureen Hetherington (Towards Understanding and Healing);
  • Orna Young (independent researcher) lost her voice and wasn’t on the panel.

(Given that the masculine manner in which NI conducts politics as well as the gender imbalance in both political institutions and civic society was a talking point, it’s worth pointing out that the panel would have been gender balanced except for illness.)

The five panellists made their opening remarks before the audience (numbering 50 to 60) joined in with their questions and observations.

Several Slugger regulars were in the audience and will hopefully add their thoughts in the comments below. My notes aren’t verbatim quotes, and at times may reflect what I thought I heard (or wanted to hear) rather than exactly what the contributors said. Happy to be corrected!

  • Significant parts of civic society ignored the Eames/Bradley panel – specifically the business community and the wider education sector – but are engaging much more wholeheartedly with the Haass process this year.
  • Northern Ireland certainly out-parades Scotland with far more parades and a much smaller population. Parading has rocketed over the last 10-20 years. Talk of cultural suppression was questioned, and not just by outgoing Parades Commission chair Peter Osborne. Interesting to hear that the Scottish police are talking to loyal orders about not having return parades to cur the drain on police resources.
  • There was agreement that a centralised mechanism to deal with the past would have to be part of the solution.
  • Derry’s year as City of Culture on top of existing relationships has created a very different atmosphere for parading in the north west.
  • “Why are people buying a lie?” in relation to the flag protests being in an excuse or a smoke screen for other issues – examples given of drugs, money lending, money laundering and paramilitary feuding and membership swapping as issues in North Belfast.
  • P4C Haass audienceThe Parades Commission spent £100k on mediators in North Belfast over many years, then replaced mediation with negotiations chaired by Lord Alderdice which fell apart (though not before various proposals were brought to the table). Peter Osborne describes the failure to find a solution in North Belfast as a regret he’ll carry with him when he steps down from the Parades Commission.
  • There’s a lack of political leadership, particularly to cover those involved in talks and doing local deals over parading.
  • Dominic Bryan noted how parties had voted in Belfast City Council over flags and asked whether those parties would vote in exactly the same way in other councils like Derry or Newry?
  • Later he also suggested that there are existing models that could help fix the issue of flags on public buildings. By focussing on council offices we’re missing the bigger problem of flags on lampposts. He got very animated over police failure to police flags and suggested that a small measure like mandating names and addresses on flags together with a small fine would be a start.
  • Peter Osborne commented that it was ridiculous that traders can’t put posters up on lampposts but intimidatory flags are erected in areas and not taken down.
  • Brandon Hamber and Maureen Hetherington agreed that that many (party) responses to Attorney General John Larkin’s comments were dishonest. Parties say victims need to be at the centre yet want to privatise victims’ support.
  • Haass and O’Sullivan are running a negotiation and not a consultation.
  • Maureen Hetherington observed that patriarchy in Northern Ireland society needs to be challenged before we can ever hope to build a shared future. A member of the audience commented that there are only three women regularly at the Haass talks: Meghan O’Sullivan, Jennifer McCann and Naomi Long. Lesley Carroll remembered Father Alec Reid telling her that “women make a difference” and said that not having women in talks process meant we were continuing to have an excluding society. The Welsh Assembly is gender balanced.
  • There was a debate whether we needed less history, more history, better history.
  • Labour Party NI’s Boyd Black put the blame at the door of the UK Labour Party for suppressing socialist politics in Northern Ireland for so long.

If Richard Haass comes up with a miraculous solution I’ll eat my hat, because it’s a process. (Brandon Hamber)

After a gentile beginning the evening warmed up to some animated discussions and contributions. Dominic Bryan’s rant about flags is well worth a listen. [When I’ve time I’ll try to pick it out of the audio and upload it separately!]

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  • I think it was actually a pretty good night…in terms of a quality discussion.
    The panel knew their subject
    Dominic …symbols. Peter Osborne …parades….Hamber.. Healing.
    Lesley Carroll brought the Churchy aspect.
    Maureen Hetherington…a “ground level” perspective.
    And there was far less “preaching to the choir” than other PFC events I have attended.
    Much too late at night for detail.

  • Rory Carr

    Labour Party NI’s Boyd Black put the blame at the door of the UK Labour Party for suppressing socialist politics in Northern Ireland for so long.

    What does Boyd Black expect when they have been suppressing socialist policies in Great Britain since before Harold Wilson was shafted ?

  • Mick Fealty

    That segment from A Long Peace is here:

    Ultimately, what unionists should seek is ‘a diffusion of authority between past, present and future.’ While many societies are greying fast, Northern Ireland is still comparatively young, with nearly one in three of its people under twenty.

    However, it too is ageing as birth rates fall. Over the next few decades its school rolls will drop and its labour force will grow. According to David Bloom, this demographic transition offers both peril and promise. For societies who embrace the future, a ‘demographic dividend’ is on offer. If youthful potential is harnessed, the economy will expand and society be strengthened. But societies that stagnate will face equally serious penalties. Unemployment will rise, as will crime, political unrest and social disintegration.

    Collecting the dividend means valuing future potential over current certainties. Education must be paid for today to release tomorrow’s potential. Existing jobs must be lost in order to create more productive ones in new industries. Old ideas must be challenged by the ideas of a rising generation.

    Unionists must ask themselves how committed they are to renewal. Do they wish to fight the old battles? Or the new ones? Do they prefer the risks of a long peace? Or the certainty of a long war?

    And this…

    Turning to the future cannot mean burying the past. As John Dunlop warns us, ‘It would be callous for a community to travel into the future and leave grieving people behind.’

    The greatest tribute to those who have suffered, however, is to build on their sacrifices.


  • Mick Fealty

    Is it too much too broad and too general to suggest that all this singular focus on the past is drawing us backwards rather than forwards?

  • Theres certainly a sea change.
    But surely for as long as I can recall, the “stance” here has been the “Past”. “Healing”, “Truth” etc.
    Personally in 2010, I was pretty scathing about what I called the Conflict Resolution “industry” (Slugger passim)….I took the view and expressed it as nauseam that the Peace Process belonged to my children and grandchildren.
    Today…Id take the view that the Peace Process was too ambiguous, a con job (and Im not totally convinced for the public good).
    In other words I have changed…or at least I am open to change.

    Sincere question Mick….do you detect a sea change with those who spoke of Reconciliation, Truth, Dealing with the Past?
    Are people actually changing their minds about all this?
    Has Inertia won?

  • “However, it too is ageing as birth rates fall.”

    Just out of curiosity, I’ve had a quick look at NISRA live birth statistics. They reached a peak of 34k in the mid 60s, drifted down to 21k in 2002 and have since steadily increased to 25k in 2012, the same rate as in 1992.

  • socaire

    You see, if the Nazis had been victorious in WW2 then Hitler et al would have taken great pleasure in making war criminals of Churchill, Harris and the rest and disposing of them accordingly. That’s what winners do. Unfortunately, in the six counties, no resolution of the conflict has yet been arrived at so we continue to keep our powder dry for the next round. This cultural pushing and shoving -or jundying – will continue until outright hostilities break out again because no matter how the Provos try to distance themselves from the 70s, 80s and 90s the same stalemate still exists. They may be tolerated at the master’s table at present because the US insists that the UK sees to ‘fair play’ but the colonial/national problem is still lurking out there in the jungle. The LUP community wants majority rule – as long as it is unionist majority and the provos are happy with their foot in the door of the big house. They have no further aspirations.

  • quality

    I agree with the concept of asking the wrong questions.

    The problem, to me at least, seems to be that focus on the ‘past’ assumes there is a shared narrative. There isn’t. There isn’t likely to be one either. That’s where a centralised mechanism falls down – the past is entirely subjective.

    Absolute truth is almost impossible in most areas of life. Imagine how hard it is here where so many people had their fingers in so many pies for so many years. ‘Truth’ is dependent on recollection and there is much convenient (or necessary depending on how you view it) forgetfulness.

  • Some thoughts on statements which I believe the Panel made.

    Rev Lesley Carroll suggested that the Good Friday Agreement was about establishing a “shared identity” …at least thats what I understood her to say. But I voted YES for exactly the opposite reason. I have an identity. I dont want another one. While a surprise, the Attorney Generals intervention meant there wasa. Debate to be had. The Agreement never had any material support from the Business Community but the losses over the Flegs Dispute had made them engage. Educationalists likewise engaging. There is the potential for it all to happen again. She mentioned Eames-Bradley as being re-visited.
    For Dominic Bryan …he has attended all but one Twelfth in 22 years…the Flegs issue and the Past…are different but related issues.
    There was always conflict in public space, …especially in a divided society…especially in a period of change.
    There was progress …after all its “only about parades”.
    The comparison is made with Scotland and the Scottish police wanting a limit on “return parades”
    For Brandon Harmer….there were five approaches to dealing with the past.
    1 The Ostrich
    2 The Pragmatic
    3 The Justice
    4 Blamers.
    5 It will all go away anyway.
    Dealing with the past should be messy, honest realistic and in the spirit of compromise.

    Maureen Hetherington is a community relations practitioner (sic). For her the wheels are coming off the Agreement.
    The DUP-SF have binned the Shared Future…and brought in Haass.
    Politicians had failed.

    Interesting that that there was an air of Reality….even pessimism. An over-reliance at times on PFC buzz words like “grassroots” “politicians have failed”, “civic society”.
    A general observation that the impact of the meeting was contained in these opening statements. The Q -A at times worked well, at times worked badly and at times …farcical.

  • Points from Q &A.
    The difference in attitude in Derry where the “loyal orders” are better tolerated. Obvious reply that shared space works better when it is not distinct majority-minority situation rather than a 50-50 situation.
    Someone mentioned a “Huge River” between the Derry cultures which is certainly not true in the case of the Fountain.
    Even so that underscores my oft-repeated point that bringing down barriers is all very well…but Norn Iron is full of places with natural boundaries between communities.
    There was certainly room for a political point to be made that unionists are only converted to sharing power when they are ousted from it.

    Dominic Bryan claimed that if he was a unionist that he would immediately take the Belfast Flegs Decision and insist that the logic of this is that designated days should apply in Derry and Newry.
    A rather strange point to make ….the whole point of nationalism is to get rid of the British flag. Belfast is hopefully only a chance for unionists to get realistic.
    Inevitably someone (a woman) brought up the lack of women in the process. Maureen Hetherington claimed women were involved in community groups.
    Dom Bryan was on much sounder ground when he (and others) said that Haass was about Negotiation. It was not Consultation.
    Reasonably enough The Green Party candidate in the Euros pointed out that PFC was talking about the Fleggers…but it was pointless as none were actually in the room or party to the conversation.

    The Question that seemed to stump everyone was “what can we do…tell me what I should do?”
    For Lesley Carroll….it was “write to your MLAs” and Eames Bradley.
    For Osborne, the present problem would end…the Peace Process has ebbed and flowed. And there will be good and bad times.
    For Dominic…the brilliant point that PSNI have not policed the situation well and that flags should be treated like election posters. Wehave a workable code around posters.
    Peter Osborne…slightly de-mob happy …it was about getting involved. Apply for the Parades Commission. Or apply to be Flags Commissioner.
    In a room half-full of potential Quango members, that went down well but most of us will never get near a Quango.
    Generally speaking there was some ritual calls for “integrated education” and a slight unravelling as people were called upon to be definitive.
    As Alan has stated Boyd Black condemned the British Labour Party…which was music to my ears. Confirmation that Labour has no time for Labour NI…and properly regards SDLP as a sister party.

    Perhaps the most eccentric point of the night was from the person (I forget who it was) who expressed embarrassment that Haass had been brought in to deal with affairs our locals could not sort out.
    Loud shouts of “hear hear”.
    But there was a South African and an English person on the five-person panel.
    And points made from the floor by South African, Canadian, American, English and German folks.
    Either Platform for Change dont do IRONY or Richard Haass is not the right kind of foreigner or our locals on the Hill are the wrong kind of politicians. (PFC being the right kind).

    Overall…the best PFC event I have attended. Audience overloaded with political anoraks like myself and PhD students from abroad.

    But an observation. It was a kind of revival after “running out of steam”. The Integrated Education Meeting in the Summer was a low point in PFC fortunes.
    But a dose of Reality would help.
    It was launched some years ago in a flurry of excitement but has not lived up to potential. It carries no “threat” to the established order.
    It had the good wishes of moderate parties…even SDLP people of a South Belfast disposition signed up.
    But Trevor Ringland is now quite properly involved in partisan politics.
    Alliance have changed…in bed with DUP and Sinn Fein and enjoying the trappings. They cant deliver on CSI, Walls or anything else for the moderates.
    And those who campaigned for “normal” British politics …well SDLP is arguably more overtly nationalist and finding its own voice. And British labour further away than ever.

  • Mick Fealty

    That first is the height of the baby boom in NI, which is four or five years behind the US, and the second is likely a shadow peak a generation or so later.

    Bloom’s point is about age structure which is about the overall balance in population between youth on one hand and the aged on the other. Bloom writes of the demographic dividend:

    Economists have tended to focus on population growth, ignoring the changing age distribution within populations as they grow. Yet these changes are arguably as important as population growth. Each age group in a population behaves differently, with distinct economic consequences: The young require intensive investment in health and education, prime-age adults supply labor and savings, and the aged
    require health care and retirement income.

    When the relative size of each of these groups in a population changes, so does the relative intensity of these economic behaviors. This matters significantly to a country’s income growth prospects.

  • The police and the locals must have a good laugh when Dominic arrives [pt3 – 18:12]; he’s a quare geg 🙂

    Here’s his suggestion re.flags as street decor:

    The people putting them up have to .. put their name and address – those putting them up – awright [chuckle]. NO unless we’re going to do something, we can f**king come back here in ten years time and I’ve been up at the flags protocol meetings for four or five years – awright – and we go round and round in circles. You know how much energy I put in? Until – until the bl**dy police are willing to say, “Yes,.we’re going to police it”. They’re supposed to be policing it for seven or eight years; they just haven’t policed it. They know they haven’t policed it; we know they haven’t policed it. Chief Constables sit there and say, “It’s not our job to police it.” Course it’s your bl**dy job to police it. [Cheers] You signed up to policing it ; it’s in the policy. Your the leaders of that – awright

    I suppose at that point the Chief Constable hands Dominic a ladder – and he and his colleagues disappear sharpish 🙂

  • But if the Parades Commission paid out £100,000 to mediators/negotiators ….it would be nice to know who they are.

  • “There was a debate whether we needed less history, more history, better history.”

    On the popular level what NI has is not so much history as folk history, which is just one step above political mythology. It has two communities who sort through any new information to see what can be usefully added to the myths and prejudices like a bunch of beggars going through a trash heap.

  • Each age group in a population behaves differently,..

    I attended a seminar on this very subject about 15 years ago. It was called “You are what you were when”.
    It was thought provoking, explaining the different attitudes between generations in a country and between different countries. I had no problem in the least in identifying young people’s attitudes in the UK being 5 years or so behind USA youth and a further 5 years between the UK and youth, in general, in N.I.

  • To give some context to the History point.
    There was a contribution from the floor…which stated that there was not enough History taught in schools. Difficult to gauge whether people actually agreed with this as there was some frustration with the length of time that the Speaker took to make the point.
    Dominic’s reaction was “over the top” of course but he is an Anthropologist and made a pitch for more Anthropology to be taught.

    A student (I detected an English accent) expressed some surprise that local students did not seem to want to learn History.
    In fact QUB History tends to “take the History out of History” and its obsession with political correctness means it is very bland.
    Indeed there was…and possibly still is….an undergraduate module which is run jointly by a historian and anthropologist and explores the “reality” and “myth-making” in Irish History.
    It is a dream module for anyone with “letsgetalongerist” tendencies and I suspect that accounts for the disproportionate number of “foreign” and “exchange students” that seemed to be enrolled in Iain.