Haass: From the other side of the table

This post originally appeared in the Ultonia blog

Richard Haass has recently done another interview on the failure of the Haass process. In it he blames Unionism for the failure of the talks. This piece is to make the case that the failure of the process lay closer to home than he presents. It lay in the internal dynamics of those talks.

The basis of the article is based on my personal experiences of the Haass talks. My role was primarily the administrative support for the DUP team (hence why in TV footage and press photographers I could be occasionally seen trailing in behind the delegation). This role meant I attended nearly every bilateral the DUP had with Haass and O’Sullivan, other parties and most of the multi-laterals too as well as see each draft of the Haass document. One function was keeping a near verbatim record of these meetings. This function meant I had a duality of role of participant and observer.

Before turning to Haass and his talks strategy I must address did I believe the parties were up for an agreement? Yes, they were. I believe the SDLP, SF and UUP were genuine in attempts to come to an agreement. Alliance were playing another game. There was a meeting in which there was almost a lightbulb moment. In part of the process, the parties were asked to meet in multi-lateral format without the involvement of Haass or O’Sullivan. In a series of exchanges at these meetings, each party came away with the impression that parties were mutually up for an agreement. Then the process moved on in earnest to the Haass drafts.

With Haass my impression was different. There were three areas of concern. First, it was clear he was uncomfortable with the agenda. If you read his books (often co-written with Meghan O’Sullivan) he favours highly complex, wide ranging and inter-related/dependent agreements to resolve conflicts. The limited agenda seemed to grate and he pushed against it. It was too ‘small’ for him. This agenda had been specifically constructed and negotiated. So by pushing against this he was undermining the basis of the talks. The agenda was more of a Unionist success than a Nationalist one so he was undermining himself with Unionism.

Second, in discussions (and later reflected in the drafts) he was only truly intellectually engaged around the past and not parades or flags. This disinterest in key issues for Unionism was not helpful. His colleague, Meghan O’Sullivan did grasp the identity concerns of Unionism better. This was perhaps because she had been the one directly involved in the civic and community engagement part of the process and spent more time here. Interestingly on a small number of occasions Haass silenced interventions by O’Sullivan during multi-laterals, interventions that in my assessment would have been helpful.

Third, Haass is a significant figure on the diplomatic and foreign relations field. These three issues were not going to set the world alight and on occasion he would comment on their smallness. Perspective and challenge are part of the process but it reinforced the sense of disinterest. At the same time major situations were developing in Syria. Places that would be perfect opportunities for his conflict resolution model. He wrote on the topic at the time. He did communicate a sense of frustration he’d ended up in the backwater when big decisions had to be made. The difficulty this contributed too was his desire for product was seen as much as so he could get out of here as it was to produce a quality product.

Beyond this there was the personal. When many hear diplomat they tend to think soft, malleable etc. Haass is an intelligent, formidable and tough figure. In Peter Robinson he got as good as he gave.

There was also the leaking of the early drafts. The general suspicion was this was the UUP (It wasn’t us. The DUP culture is of reluctant leakers. This is based in the belief that if you have an easy culture of leaking then everything flows out not just the advantageous). If it was the UUP, the intention seemed to be to embarrass us with ideas that Unionism didn’t like. However, it actually made our work easier. When Haass had raised them we had stated their unacceptability, unworkability etc and when leaked often the public reaction to them proved our point. Haass was frustrated by this especially as a pet project he was fascinated by didn’t fly.

So as the process began in earnest there was some deterioration in terms of his relationship with Unionism in the talks but not to levels that wholly undermined it. The early drafts had a core structure and a direction of travel as various pieces were removed or added. In the days before Christmas my assessment would have been a deal was possible though not yet in probable territory (although I am one of life’s pessimists). Bi-laterals with UUP, SDLP and SF had progressed reasonably. However, Haass considered more of the changes to the drafts to be in Unionism’s favour and angered we were still fighting him on a number of issues.

This culminated in a distinct shift in strategy. As Christmas day approached a new draft was produced. On reading it my assessment went from possible to nil chance of an agreement before Christmas. It was a break from the previous drafts in content and the result was the Christmas Eve talks were a disaster with the meeting ending without it determined whether or not Haass would return. The new strategy was to create a grouping of Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance with the aim of pressurising Unionism. This critically injured the process in three ways.

First, a negotiation is about trying to ensure the interests of the different parties are sufficiently met. This adoption of a pressurisation strategy reinforced the perception that Haass was more focused on production of product that a product that served sufficiently the needs of the parties. Perhaps Haass’s dealings earlier on the peace process with the UUP made him believe that Unionism buckled under pressure. It was not an approach that was going to work with the DUP. It also reinforced the relationship within the talks between the UUP and DUP. The atmosphere shifted distinctly to us v them as opposed to people seeking an agreement.

Second, Haass had continually said that the talks were between the parties not with him. However, the shift in strategy made that to be a fallacy. Matters that had not been previously raised in bi-laterals appeared in this document. His new strategy effectively created a three party v two party dynamic that essentially killed the bi-laterals between parties.

Third, it also gave Alliance an over-inflated role in the process that proved unhelpful as some within it were playing a different game than trying to reach an agreement. Haass hadn’t picked this up but they too were subject to his anger in the immediate aftermath when they rejected it as well.

At its core, Haass had made a bold shift in terms of his negotiation strategy and targeted one section that his relationship was already uneasy with. It was a move that backfired and failed. He may choose to blame those that his failed strategy was aimed at but perhaps he should consider some more self-reflection.

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