Haass Talks: three shrugs

As David McCann has noted below the Haass document has been published. I had begun to think of a blog on this subject before I read the draft but had to revise the idea completely, due essentially to the lack of concrete proposals in the final draft. Looking at the document and the number of times it says they were unable to get agreement on things such as the definition of a victim, almost any concrete finding on flags etc. one suspects that one proposal after another was deleted or rendered irrelevantly anodyne until they had run out of useful things to say. This in many ways is axiomatic of the relative failure of our political process: an issue which bears further analysis after looking at the three sets of issues Haass covered.

Here there were some proposals. However, their “Office for Parades, Select Commemorations, and Related Protests” and then “Authority for Public Events Adjudication” were Quango typed bodies with powers sort of akin to the Parades Commission. The problems would inevitably have arisen after their judgements which would have been perceived or pretended to be perceived as favouring one side or the other. The idea of a code of conduct and all the other proposals sound reasonable but the problem would no doubt have been in interpretation of the code and relating the actions of individuals as either being within or without that code.

On parades many unionists will always downplay every unacceptable action by bands and their supporters and play up the unacceptable behaviour of nationalist protesters. Essentially many in the pro marching unionist community believe that protesters actually want to confine expressions of cultural unionism solely to 100% unionist areas. In contrast clearly nationalists play up behaviour by bands and supporters and many feel that those parading and supporting will bend each and every ruling in every way conceivable in order to cause offence. The sad reality is that the worse actions and fears of both communities have been realised on many occasions. Essentially therefore such is the complete lack of trust between the paraders and protesters that compromise agreements are almost impossible. That would therefore lead to the new Authority making decisions which would bring it into the same level of disrepute as the Parades Commission.

On flags the Haass document seems to say almost nothing of substance. The document states in place after place that there was no agreement on the relevant subjects. The prospect of designated days for the union flag at all councils would have been unacceptable. Unionists clearly would not have accepted such a compromise re Belfast City Hall and nationalists would not have accepted the flag being required to be flown over the likes of Derry and Newry. The one group to have gained from such a compromise would have been Alliance whose decision in many ways was the catalyst for the flags issue. They would then have been able to present the end result as more pro unionist than the current situation which might have helped assuage their unpopularity amongst many unionists after the Belfast City Hall decision.

On the issue of unofficial flags on public property such as lamp posts there was again no sign of agreement. Even if one had been achieved it is difficult to believe that effective action could have been taken. The police are most unlikely to have been keen to remove flags on lamp posts in areas where their flying is uncontentious to the local people. The police simply have better things to do with their time than take down irrelevant flags.

The idea of a new Northern Ireland flag did seem the one startlingly naïve idea from Haass. In every other way he seemed a man with a fairly good understanding of Northern Ireland and divided societies. However, the simple fact is that unionists have national and regional flags with which whether official (the Union Flag) or now unofficial (Ulster Banner and many others) they are entirely happy: as do nationalists – the Tricolour or assorted other flags. That is of course not to mention the assorted other flags appropriated by one side or the other of which the Israeli and Palestinian flags are the most commonly seen. The very idea of a new flag to which all would supposedly give loyalty ignored the inherently divided nature of those loyalties here and seems a bit silly. Especially silly from a very experienced diplomat with a PhD from Oxford; who has written extensively about other conflicts such as India / Pakistan and who, being Jewish, is likely to have more than a passing understanding of identity issues. Still we can all have odd ideas from time to time.

The Past
On the past Dr. Haass avoided the sanctimonious, self righteousness which so completely flawed Eames Bradley. Indeed the failure of the Haass document anywhere to mention Eames Bradley demonstrates most eloquently the moral turpitude into which those proposals descended and their utterly appropriate rejection by practically everyone in Northern Ireland.

The problems with Haass’s proposals seems centrally that they suggested little more than changing the names of the organisations dealing with the past including relieving the PSNI of the financial responsibility for the HET. The idea of allowing people to give information with limited immunity sounds not completely unreasonable but as demonstrated by The Dissenter here on slugger is actually a very flawed plan. The outworking of the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval could also be problematic with the concern that it might be able to require information from members of the security forces who would be much easier to identify than members of paramilitary organisations. I confess not to seeing such proposals in Haass but there at least seemed some concern amongst the unionist delegates in the talks that such a scenario was possible.

The suggestion of strands of analysis for consideration also seems reasonable especially if the strands can be broadened as mentioned by Mainland Ulsterman here. However, again those look like serious pieces of academic research and probably best left for some time rather than used as part of an almost religious pseudo academic reconciliation strategy so beloved of the letsgetalongerists. In reality such work if done properly would in the short to medium term be more likely to inflame rather than damp down sectarian disagreements here.

The fundamental problem Haass found was that there are two almost mutually exclusive analyses of both the past and even more so the present. Broader unionism and broader nationalism (and especially republicanism) are not going to agree on the past nor on flags nor on parades. For either to win on a given issue results in the other loosing: a classic zero sum game. By tying all three threads together into one proposed agreement one may make the zero sum calculation more complicated but one does not make it go away. Detractors from the agreement can simple point to their sides perceived “sell out” on issue x and conveniently ignore their perceived victory on issue y. By tying all three issues together far from making compromise easier, ironically compromise has been made more difficult as the whole is one giant zero sum.

There are circumstances where opposing sides can agree even in a zero sum situation but that is if there is adequate trust between the two negotiating parties. In our case that trust is simply not there. The hope might have been that such trust would have developed as power sharing went forward. That has been completely incorrect. Indeed due to the carve up rather than sharing of power which our system has created, trust between the DUP and Sinn Fein has if anything, decreased since they took power.

The other potential cause to force an agreement might have been if despite their mutual distrust the parties both would have gained something from a compromise or lost something from failure to compromise. Whilst an agreement might have gained Robinson and McGuinness international plaudits they would not have obtained much in the way of hard benefits and might well have undermined their own political positions. The possibility of threats from without – principally the British Government- might have helped force compromise. However, the current government has been much more keen to let the Stormont administration do its own thing. Furthermore reducing the block grant or threatening the likes of suspension of powers would have been much more draconian than would have been politically justified or acceptable.

The simple reality is that there was not enough incentive for the parties to come to an agreement and too much to lose from entering into an agreement seen by its own side as a sell out. Furthermore despite the failure of an agreement nothing much has changed. We did not actually need this agreement to continue with our current status quo. The system is set up not requiring it, the trust for it is not there and has not been built up in part because of the system we have. As such failure was extremely likely no matter Richard Haass’s skill and efforts or the skills and efforts of our politicians.

It is also the case that few normal people in Northern Ireland were that desperate for an agreement. A few may have been foolish enough to think their side could win a huge victory but that was never a real option. There are also the letsgetalongerists desperate for an agreed shared Northern Ireland where we all elect moderate politicians and make daisy chains together instead of marching and protesting (or ignoring it) all summer. However, again they are in actual fact a tiny minority. For all the rest of us the process was not that big a deal and avoiding “our own” side making an embarrassing surrender was probably more important (though still not that important) than making a compromise. Rather at this time of year there was the remains of the turkey to eat up, films to watch on TV and the credit card bill from Christmas to worry about.

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