It’s worth remembering what the Haass talks were, and what they weren’t. This is not as easy as it may seem since the media have been portraying it has some sort of GFA3 event. In fact Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan is all there was: a small if perfectly formed gang of
two three (plus Charles Landlow) with no support, no back up and no informed [local] advisors to tell them where the hidden trap doors where.
We should probably view Haass for what it actually was: an iteration of OFMdFM’s ill-starred Together: Building a United Community. They bundled all the things the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree on and drew the UUP, APNI and the SDLP into a series of meetings which ultimately also failed to agree an advance on anything.
Political expectations were at most that Dr Haass could offer OFMdFM some clever new ideas for the basis of agreement. But in practice running it through committee often meant taking a good idea, like giving the new body tasked with investigating the past actual powers of investigation (something the HET never had) and then killing it by taking it away from the police and making it report to the politician dominated Policing Board.
Accounts vary of how the discussions went behind locked doors, but according to one insider Alex Attwood played blinder on promoting themed investigations of the past, using the same single transferable speech. The insider attributed to Attwood, rather than Sinn Fein, the prospering of themes through seven drafts (one mention in draft 2, and 22 by draft 7). What political use that is to the SDLP is something of a moot point: for 80% of the heavy lifting, they’ll be lucky to acquire a 10% pay off.
There are also reports that Dr Haass was dismayed with the Alliance party’s rejection of the whole deal, not least since they had played a fairly voluble role in the hammering out of several suggestions, including one for “licensing of flag and emblem displays in public space” which made a fleeting appearance in draft 2 but was gone by draft 3.
Mike Nesbitt and the UUP had been doing okay. Keeping his distance, with his team of grey beards seemingly aware that escape from OFMdFM’s blame trap would be the key marker of success. But once he’d told the media circus what he thought they wanted to hear (ie that their Christmases had not been spoiled for no good reason) that they were 90% of the way to a deal, no one wanted to hear his views on the dysfunctional machinations of the semi detached polit bureau.
Meanwhile even though there is no deal, both Sinn Fein and the DUP can accurately claim they tried to bring their cabinet colleagues, and they also failed to broker any kind of a functional agreement on the same matters. And guess what today’s headlines are about: Sinn Fein and DUP at odds over way ahead. Which is, of course, just about where we all came in.
Which mention of the Irish News leads me to Brian Feeney’s nicely acerbic column in which he notes that as Ministers most of the local administration continue to “slide on a toboggan supplied by their civil servants”. He goes on:
If they can’t agree on how to allocate money to the poorest in society, why on earth did anyone imagine they could agree on contentious matters like flags and emblems?
Come to think of it, the very fact that the main parties devoted their longest ever face to face sessions since 2007 to discussing stuff which doesn’t affect the living standards of anyone here is testimony in itself to their failure as politicians.
That was their priority in these times?
Well, quite. But Feeney also pinpoints a key reason for the drift. Haass was, amongst other things, a think in. Why? Because ‘the current crop came into politics without any ideas, plans, local schemes or projects to implement’. There’s only plans they want to block.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty