Platform for Change: Haass Talks. Discuss.

Platform for Change: Haass Talks. Discuss.
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
25 November 2013

Platform for Change held an evening roundtable discussion event, to review the current status of the Haass talks, which are focusing on flags, parades and dealing with the past. The guest speakers were:

  • Trevor Ringland (Discussant Chair)
  • Reverend Lesley Carroll
  • Dominic Bryan
  • Peter Osborne
  • Brandon Hamber
  • Maureen Hetherington

Addressing the audience of fifty, Mr Ringland quoted the episode “Blackadder Goes Forth”, and his explanation of why World War I started: “Perhaps it was too much work not to have a war.” Or put in terms of contemporary Northern Ireland, perhaps it is too much work to have peace.

Reverend Carroll described the initial optimism of the idea of a new shared identity on the back of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, but how that feels so distant now.

For her, much of this relates to the whole of Northern Ireland society’s inability to deal with the past. She said that no one is willing to bring in a breath of fresh air to this topic, but soon commented on the Attorney General of Northern Ireland’s recent statement on drawing a line in pursuing Troubles-related criminal redress: “The statement is a surprise, but it’s still a debate that needs to be had.”

A member of the Consultative Group to Deal with the Past, Reverend Carroll defended the Eames-Bradley Report as a step on the way towards reconciliation: “Eames-Bradley gave victims a right to choose truth/justice pathways.”

She concluded by arguing that in order to remove the toxicity of the past, there needs to be a big push by civic society. Positively, she noted the improvement in the engagement of the business community, which chose not to participate at all with the Consultative Group’s work, but more recently has been responsive to civic protests (e.g. Backin’ Belfast campaign).

Dominic Bryan, a lecturer at the Institute for Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, highlighted the near tripling of parades from 1985-2013 — 1,800 to 4,500. But he put this in a perspective that a conflict about parades, flags and protests is an advancement on episodes of violence, i.e. today’s disputes are part of a normal democratic process.

Peter Osborne, retiring Chair of the Parades Commission described Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as poetic, with layered connotations. Mr Osborne underlined the significance of the participation of whites in the civil rights campaign, that they recognised that the campaign for social justice would impact them as part of wider societal reform: “In Northern Ireland, we cannot walk alone.”

Brandon Hamber (INCORE, University of Ulster) used the light at the end of the tunnel metaphor, but with a twist: “Why don’t we have a tunnel?”

In regards to dealing with the past, Mr Hamber said that he is convinced that there will need to be some centralised mechanism, to oversee a process.

He gave a quick review of five typical approaches to this topic:

  1. Ostrich: stick your head in the sand, hope issue goes away
  2. Pragmatic: draw a line and move on
  3. High Horse: insistence on truth and justice
  4. Deflection: issue will be resolved another way
  5. Blamer: it’s your fault

To which Mr Hamber described himself as a messy, honest realist. He made the point that in Northern Ireland, the protagonists have no interest in building that metaphorical tunnel, and he asked how do the rest of us help support them; Mr Hamber thinks we should support the politician’s process (i.e. Haass Talks). But he also warned that we could build a great tunnel for dealing with the past, but still not address the issue of segregation.

Maureen Hetherinton (The Junction, Derry-Londonderry), in contrast, was very critical of the current state of political affairs: “The wheels are coming off the political arrangements of the Agreements.” Furthermore, she argued, the community relations policy A Shared Future (advanced by direct rule ministers during the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly) would have allowed politicians to deal with outstanding, contentious issues, “but now we have a shared-out politics of a Sinn Fein-DUP carve up.” In her view, their published Together: Building a United Community policy “pales” to A Shared Future.

Ms Hetherington described the Haass Talks as symbolising the biggest failure of our political system. She called for a grassroots conversation for new politicians.

In the subsequent Q&A session, I contrasted Derry-Londonderry’s parading success with that of Belfast’s.

Constructively, Peter Osborne listed three ingredients he saw in Parades Commission work that improved situations:

  1. Everyone is motivated to make progress
  2. Relationships are developed
  3. Leadership is demonstrated across the board

Less helpful were other responses, such as the Apprentice Boys are a different breed of Orangeman (ignoring the Orange’s flagship parade in the Maiden City this year), and that because Protestants there knew that they were the clear minority, it is easier for them to feel more secure. (This sounded like an inverse 1960s liberal Unionist argument: if Catholics would just accept that they were the minority, then accommodation could be made with them.)

For what it’s worth, Mr Osborne’s reflections rang more true, witnessed in other contested spaces in the world, where there is a focus on practical outcomes. The Master Plan in Nicosia, Cyprus, and the operational working of Kosovo Police in Mitrovica are two examples that come to mind.

The discussion moved to our collective participation. For example, Mr Hamber remarked how the Northern Ireland Executive’s economic strategy is void of context, that somehow an Executive-led campaign for foreign direct investment will “magically transform society”. Instead, Mr Hamber argued that we need to get ordinary voices into the economic debate.

Likewise, in the desire to have the police accept their duties to enforce the rule of law in regards to the display of flags, the PSNI will want all political parties to back them up publicly if they do so. As this is currently not the case/uncertain, this is another opportunity to put pressure/influence all parties.

Back to dealing with the past, Ms Hetherington said, “We take the scenic route.” Much of this is entirely rational — the past is painful, many of the protagonists are still alive (some in positions of political and community power), and there is a lack of trust.

Perhaps we are taking the scenic route because there is no tunnel.

Perhaps we should start talking about building a tunnel.

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