Will the panel of parties now publish their final draft proposals?

While not a surprise, it is still disappointing that the five parties in the Executive – and in particular the big two – who arranged The Panel of Parties in the NI Executive were able to identify three problem areas but were not confident enough to compromise enough to agree a way forward.

Given the distance between DUP and Sinn Fein and their nearest rivals in terms of electoral support, there was surely room for big compromise, for putting themselves in other people’s shoes and applying grace over self-interest. Early tough-talking public comment by some of the political panellists looked like choreography to prepare their supporters for some unpalatable ideas in the final agreement. But hope faded.

And with 45% of voters already avoiding the ballot box, confidence in politics is not high.

Progress was never going to come without large gestures that would alienate some supporters but would be for the good of society. Or at least better for society than grown men eating their Christmas dinner in a caravan at Twaddell Avenue waiting for their July parade to be allowed to finish. Better for society than tatty flags of all colours hanging from lampposts and being burnt on commemorative bonfires.

Failure to agree at the end of a self-convened process looks like a failure of intransigent and carve-up politics to step forward… and smells of some unionist leaders wanting to be able to say “we held out longer and got a better deal”.

In the early morning press conference, Richard Haass said it was “surprising” that they had made most progress around “the past” given that this was the area people were most sceptical about success being possible before the intensive talks started.

The follow-up talks will have less urgency and will now drag on for months if not years. I doubt that it is in the interests of parties to resolve the issues one at a time without making it a single bottle of mixed bitter and sweet pills to take to the electorate. Any side deals on language and equality/rights may be harder to conclude when the balancing scales are in public view.

Dr Haass urged Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to make the details of the final document public so people could make up their own minds. (The News Letter)

The hundreds of organisations that made submissions to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks will be keen to see how their proposals and principles are reflected in the political thinking. Publishing the draft isn’t without risk, as there may be criticism of the trauma centre proposals which some in the victims sector will see as unnecessary and counterproductive.

Update – it’s now been published.

Meghan O’Sullivan and Richard Haass have left the building flown out of Northern Ireland.

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has offered to pick up the reins, recognising that “significant progress has been made” and saying:

It is important to build on this and continue to seek agreement in areas that continue to be a focus for tension and division within society. I welcome the suggestion by Dr Haass that the parties should now lose no time in getting together to see how they can most constructively take things forward. I would encourage them to maintain the momentum that their efforts, working with the Haass team, has created. For our part the UK Government will look at how we can best facilitate this.

The parties now have two weeks before the next plenary session of the Assembly. A lot of progress could unravel before then.

Some other reactions:

  • Jeff Peel calls it “shambolic” and calls for the Secretary of State to intervene.
  • NI21’s John McCallister said “no leadership has been shown and the Haass five have only succeeded in creating new theatres for disparity and a continued distraction from the reality of governing Northern Ireland’s present”.
  • The Workers Party‘s analysis is that “Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan have done little more than propose new ways of managing division – not overcoming it”.
  • Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis said: “It is now essential the parties return to these issues as a matter of urgency in the new year supported by the full engagement of the UK and Irish Governments. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see their political leaders make the compromises necessary to overcome outstanding differences”.
  • Green Party’s Steven Agnew noted the “wide remit … within a narrow time frame” but was “disappointed with the abject failure … to reach a workable agreement”. He added: “The task they were charged with was to put the good of the people of Northern Ireland at the centre of negotiations. However, it appears that for some, the out-dated mind-set of serving ‘their communities’ has been a block to meaningful progress. This is the same failure of political leadership and unwillingness to find common ground which is played out within the Assembly structure on a daily basis”.

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