There are grounds for hope in the Haass document, even the outline of modest solutions

Here’s an early critique without benefit of interpretation. From the language of the paper it’s more difficult than I thought to spot the precise causes of breakdown. That awaits the parties’ own accounts which hopefully will be better than spin. It’s quite true that there’s a great deal in it that can usefully be worked on.  It creates its own pressure. The parties and the governments ought not to be able to let it gather dust. Early indications are mildly encouraging.   The emphasis is on taking responsibility long avoided, building momentum, creating greater transparency and opening up to much greater public involvement.  In many cases it prescribes time lines for action within a couple of months’ time.  For instance it gives a detailed set of timescales for managing each stage of a parade application. This grew ever more complicated with each draft.

Whether “action” amounts to implementation is one thing.  But there is plenty of opportunity here for wider public involvement. If that were to take off, it might in itself dissipate some of the anger and frustration unless the field is left to militants.

Inevitably a new plethora of arms- length bodies with prescriptive new duties is envisaged.

A Commission on Identity, Culture, and Tradition would hold “structured discussions” in public meetings to explore the issues behind the flying of flags.   In practical terms this leaves the door open to maintaining local council option. In councils observing rotation, the mayor to decide?

There is  strong emphasis on community dialogue and mediation over parades and  the expected  two tier structure for managing them ,no longer under the Secretary of State but an arms- length  body at last under the Executive – now cumbrously  called  The Office for Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests  and The Authority for Public Events Adjudication.  The emphasis is upheld of  the lawful right to parade peacefully. All politicians would be required to sign up to supporting a lawful ban whether they personally agreed with it or not.

The public would be urged to contribute to “an archive for conflict-related oral histories, documents, and other relevant materials from individuals of all backgrounds, from Northern Ireland and beyond, who wish to share their experiences connected with the conflict.”

The whole package of parades, identity flags and the past  would be managed by another arms length  body,  the Implementation and Reconciliation Group of representatives of the five parties,  “to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of all the bodies outlined in this agreement, and issue progress reports and calls for improvements where necessary.”   I’ll return to this body later.

The most interesting mechanisms deal with the past. The parties unanimously oppose a straight amnesty and have agreed that they should all use their influence to persuade people to come forward with information. It will be interesting to see how or even if this will be taken forward.

The structure neatly splits information retrieval from evidence for prosecutions. A Historical Investigations Unit would replace the HET and the Troubles role of the Police Ombudsman. It would conduct a review of all 3000 cases but not all of them from scratch. It would be given new powers to replace the PSNI in follow-up investigations. There would be no amnesty but the suggestion of legal sanctions for failure to give evidence has not been adopted.

Some commentators fear a structural bias against the police but I see no evidence for this. If up to this point the HET failed to find enough evidence to prosecute lots of police officers why should it be thought that the new HIU would do so, despite the finding of unbalanced treatment of evidence against the police?

More fundamentally why  should any former paramilitary or police officer come forward voluntarily until the threat of prosecutions is safely lifted and they have the other option of the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR)?   No one answering the calls to come forward could be prosecuted on the basis of their own testimony. Witnesses could give evidence anonymously through third parties. Families would be given one version of the result and the public another. In the published reports the ICIR could make use of the results of the Investigations Unit but the files of the Information Retrieval Unit would remain closed to the Investigations Unit.

In the real world it seems likely that information retrieval could not make significant progress until  HIU has completed its work and all 3000 files have been closed. That could take years and thwart hopes of giving fuller information to many relatives and the rest of us. This is in conflict with the document’s pious statement that “Northern Ireland does not have the luxury of putting off this difficult, but potentially transformative, task any longer.”    With all the parties apparently opposing an amnesty the only pressure on people to talk might come  by challenging them with  information retrieved from HIU investigations while  protecting their identities.

Its tempting  to conclude that despite all the warm words the main political parties have their own reasons for avoiding facing the issues of the past. Perhaps the most striking single failure was the inability to settle who is eligible for victims’ services when these should so obviously (and legally?) be based on need not reward.

A great role is envisaged for academics and experts especially historians, reporting to an Implementation and Reconciliation Group of political nominees .  However the academics are  naively treated as an on tap resource to be tasked like school pupils for a project . These proposals would need to be redrawn for any hope of implementation.

  • The ‘Commission on Identity, Culture, and Tradition’ would use “ academics and other experts to examine what identity, culture, and tradition mean in the context of a multi-cultural society.”
  • The “archive for conflict-related oral histories, documents, and other relevant materials”  would  rightly be non- judgmental but would exclude “ inflammatory “ material – a potentially unacceptable  constraint. Historians need “the  inflammatory material” and who in any case decides what it inflammatory?
  • The IRG would set the “themes”  and “ assessments of patterns”  for the academics to develop.   Eg:

hypotheses for consideration include: alleged collusion between governments and paramilitaries; alleged ethnic cleansing in border regions and in interface neighbourhoods; the alleged UK ‘shoot to kill’ policy; the reported targeting of off-duty UDR soldiers, prison officers, and reservist Royal Ulster Constabulary officers; the degree to which, if at all, Ireland provided a ‘safe haven’ to republican paramilitaries; intra-community violence by paramilitaries; the use of lethal force in public order situations; detention without trial; mistreatment of detainees and prisoners; any policy behind the Disappeared; or the sources of financing and arms for paramilitary groups.

( Why leave out the role of informers in undermining the paramilitary organisations?)

A Historical Timeline Group, dedicated to developing a factual chronology of the conflict. It should be composed of suitably qualified academics who would conduct a review of a broad range of historical material with a view to producing a timeline of events from 1968 to 1998. The objective would be to provide a factual resource for the work of other projects relating to the past, including but not limited to the archive of personal narratives. Its goal would be to neither condemn nor condone, but rather to offer a contextualised, evidence-based accompaniment for other work on the past.

And all reporting to a body comprised of politicians! The aim is well meaning but nervously over prescriptive, written to avoid any suggestion of blame, designed perhaps to organise material for later analysis and support “reconciliation.” These terms  I’d guess are unacceptable and a breach of academic freedom. Reports based on information retrieval should be entirely independent.

Despite the inevitable criticisms, the Executive parties should be given credit for embarking on the voyage. Now they have to reach port with a new pilot or perhaps the same one.   There are several references to a direct role for the British and Irish governments.  These should be taken up with the same concentration of effort as in 1998 and 2006. Some of the issues are underlying, others urgent. After Hass 2013, they can no longer be ignored without further damage.

Outcomes seem a little clearer. Settle for local option for flags, implement the parades regime with robust community consultation mechanisms, prove to the point of destruction that future prosecutions will be few and  the hopes of some ( how many?) families for more information will remain unfulfilled. A poll of families on their treatment and the choices facing them would be enlightening.  Then widen the canvas, open the archives and leave to the professionals to give an account of the Troubles and their mainsprings. This is not beyond the wit of humankind, given the will.

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