Haass had basic flaws. It’s time for the two governments to step up to the plate

It was in its way encouraging that the Assembly parties themselves launched the Haass process but they seem to have bitten off more than they could chew. They appear to have gone into the high pressure phase without clear ideas of how to reach goals other than muddling through. So far we haven’t heard of any back channels or talks on the margin where so often  deals get done, or arm twisting from  big brothers or sisters.  Pressured negotiations worked before, on Good Friday and at St Andrews, so why not now?  For a host of reasons. Try a couple.  To encourage fresh evidence, which do you go for, limited immunity or legal penalty? Or is it the latter if they former fails? Or neither? This is a technical as well as a political question. Where was the expertise to help answer it?  Then there are fundamental political questions such as, how much clout do the parties have on the ground? With the main paramilitaries stood down who can shoehorn veterans and the newly unruly into cooperating? Did Sinn Fein offer to try? Did the Unionist parties and Alliance offer to encourage police officers to join the truth recovery process? If so they’ve kept it quiet so far. And who in the absence of the British government could speak for MI5, the Army and what passed for political strategy during the long years of direct rule?

It seems clear already that the whole process was too narrowly concentrated on the pressure points without the means of solving them. That requires a broader-based cast, pressure from outside and a sight of a bigger picture than who did what to whom, the question which will in most cases will anyway fail to get a clear answer.

Brian Rowan’s report in the Belfast Telegraph ( 0ne of few with decent content)  shows how unlikely it was that agreement on such a complex agenda of the past could be reached, quite apart from the superficially more urgent matters of flags and parades.

In late drafting in this long process, we watched how quickly things could appear and disappear from the script.

For instance, within the proposed information retrieval process there is a plan at some point to look at themes and patterns.

We read a list of these in draft five of the document at the weekend:

  • Alleged collusion between UK and loyalist forces, and between the      Republic of Ireland and PIRA;

  • Alleged ethnic cleansing in border regions and interface      neighbourhoods;

  • An alleged UK shoot-to-kill policy;

  • Detention without trial and alleged mistreatment of prisoners by UK;

  • Reported targeting of off-duty and reservist RUC officers by the  IRA;

  • The degree to which, if at all, the Republic prolonged the conflict by knowingly providing a safe haven to the IRA;

  • Alleged intra-community punishment or enforcement by  paramilitaries;

  • The policy behind the Disappeared;

  • Sources of financing and arms for loyalist and republican   paramilitaries.

We could add plenty to the list: for instance the extent to which paramilitaries were penetrated by informers.  But what is the overall context of these themes and how do they interrelate? What if any is the link between “a Historical Investigations Unit with full investigative powers and, an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval?” These matters of structure and process only become amenable to diplomacy when coherent designs are on the table that the parties are already familiar rather than playing with words in draft after draft .  Final negotiations are essentially about tweaking not fundamentals. Small wonder  they failed.

Apart from a lack of context the other missing element is pressure. It’s time for the two governments to rescue the process by reaching their own views on the Hass agenda  – preferably united – and putting them to the parties. In the end that is what sovereign governments are for, to provide leadership if it is lacking elsewhere. The lesson  of the Hass process is that it is still asking too much of the local parties to arrive at basic solutions on their own.

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