After Haass: Risk of growing local disputes into toxic regional problems

Richard Haass cartoon, Brian John Spencer

I’ve got my iPhone beside me as I write. I’m writing on my laptop. But if I break off and have a spare moment later I can pick up this article on the iPhone and continue working.

I use the little thing for calls, texting, taking photos, taking video, editing video, video conferencing, scanning articles, as an internet connection for my laptop, GPS navigation, and – of course – surfing the internet. I can use my fingerprint to unlock it, my voice to command it.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life without it.

And yet, the iPhone didn’t exist whenever devolution was restored seven years ago. So much has changed since then. The world is truly a different place. Although sometimes in Northern Ireland it doesn’t feel like that.

The sad reality is that in the time it took Apple to revolutionise the way we live and pile up more cash than the American Government, Stormont’s most memorable achievement is a 5p tax on plastic bags.

The problem with our politicians is that they’re all process and no product. They’re addicted to process – like heroin junkies on a course of maintenance therapy. They say the economy is their number one priority, but their inaction tells a different story.

In an era of scarce public money, political inaction sees millions squandered on policing trouble and servicing division. In an era of intense and ever-growing global competition, political inaction thwarts the private sector’s efforts to create jobs and wealth.

With youth unemployment at record levels and business start-ups at record lows, the young and the mobile will simply leave Northern Ireland for a better future elsewhere.

That’s why the Haass talks were ill-conceived and fatally flawed from the start. The Americans should not have got involved. The British and Irish should not have allowed it to happen. It was a big mistake.

By labelling “the past”, “parades” and “flags” as issues of equal importance and bringing them together into a single talking-shop, the process conflated and confused a number of distinct and very separate themes. It also risked growing local disputes into toxic regional problems.

That’s not to say there are not lessons to be learned from our American cousins.

When I first visited New York as a student in 1990, it was a dangerous place. 2,245 of its citizens were murdered that year.

I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing as I arrived at Port Authority bus station and a shooting a few days later as I was leaving in a minibus to the airport – bullets ricocheting off a wall in front and then a man clambering from a car clutching his stomach, blood oozing between his fingers.

New York today is a different place. Last year the number murdered was a record low of just 333 – that’s an 85% reduction in the rate. So what happened?

In the mid 1990s a Mayor called Rudy Giuliani and a Police Commissioner called Bill Bratton put in place a new policy on crime called “Zero Tolerance”. Basically, they stopped letting things go. No matter how difficult for their officers or apparently minor the offence, they tackled the crime. They locked criminals up and they put more cops on the streets.

It’s a policy that has continued – at times controversially. It hasn’t been universally popular. But no-one questions that crime is down dramatically.

Northern Ireland has generally adopted a different policy. It doesn’t have a name, but let’s call it “Maximum Tolerance”. Illegality is often tolerated and accommodated lest confronting it causes more trouble. Inaction by politicians is forgiven with the usual trite explanation “it may not be perfect, but look at how far they’ve come…”

But the deadline for delivery is long past. The rest of the world isn’t waiting and doesn’t care. That’s the message Stormont needs to hear from London, Dublin and Washington. If it really is time to “fish or cut bait” then please stop chartering new boats.

First published last month in the NI Chamber of Commerce’s magazine Ambition.