Haass mired in political mud … while the parties dig in deeper

By Brian Rowan

First published via The Belfast Telegraph – DebateNI, Tuesday 28 January 2014

The five Executive parties meet today to try to breathe new life into the Haass proposals on flags, parades and the past. But optimism is in short supply, writes Brian Rowan

The challenge for the Executive parties meeting again today is how to lift the Haass proposals out of the political mud. Towards the end of the negotiations on flags, parades and the past, US diplomat Dr Richard Haass said he was “not in the business of doing post-mortems, because the patient is still alive”. He meant this ambitious initiative involving himself and talks vice-chair Professor Meghan O’Sullivan still had potential; that it was still breathing. What they were trying to do was make agreements with the DUP, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance on three toxic issues that still poison the political process.

The US team is gone now after making seven attempts at writing a set of proposals that would represent meaningful progress across the three issues. And, in their absence, the question is for how much longer this patient can be kept alive without some tangible sign of progress. “Nobody wants to be the first to leave,” one of the talks negotiators told this newspaper, meaning the first to walk away from the process. And, today, the five party leaders will be joined by some of the negotiators who worked on this project with the Haass/O’Sullivan team, including the Orange Order chaplain Mervyn Gibson. He was part of the DUP negotiating team and will join Peter Robinson for today’s meeting. “It is vital that the party leaders authorise further dialogue through the working group that Dr Haass had suggested,” another of the DUP negotiators, Jeffrey Donaldson, told the Belfast Telegraph. And, in that comment, we see the stand-off.

Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein see the process now as implementation of the seventh of the Haass documents, not re-negotiation. Their concern is that a working group would mean delay, dithering and an attempt to re-write and unpick the proposals. So, they want to keep the talking at that leadership level and within a tight timeframe. We know that on one of the issues – parades – the Orange Order still has significant concerns; one example being that, in the area of criteria and cost, “the police could say there’s not the budget to do this [police a parade]”. And, according to one source, the Orange Order view the proposed code of conduct as “over-regulation for one side of the community”. These are just some of the gaps to be closed and it is not just the Orange Order and unionists who have concerns. So, over the next three weeks, the party leaders, with other negotiators, will look at what is possible.

“My understanding of the next three weeks is we are trying to identify where the gaps exist and whether they can be closed [quickly],” Alliance MP and negotiator Naomi Long said. “Clearly we would like to see the Haass text implemented and, in some parts, developed further. It remains to be seen whether other parties are similarly committed.”

Martin McGuinness wants quick progress and has made clear that a call on this will have to be made within weeks. But part of the background to these leaders talks is that very public row between him and First Minister Peter Robinson. McGuinness accused the unionist parties of “dancing to the tune of extremists within their own community”. Robinson responded by saying that Sinn Fein “will not dictate the rules of engagement” in this latest phase of this initiative on flags, parades and the past. “They do not own the process,” Robinson said. “They do not control how it will function … nor will they prescribe the timing.” What McGuinness can ‘control’ is what Sinn Fein does. Similarly, Robinson will determine the DUP approach and, if neither moves, then this process is stuck. “Am I optimistic?” one source asked, before answering his own question: “No, I’m not.”

No movement would mean that the Parades Commission would continue to function in its role and that new policing and the new Chief Constable who replaces the retiring Matt Baggott would continue to be held back by the past. “I have said from the start that the worst thing we could do is rush a deal,” Ulster Unionist negotiator Tom Elliott said. “It has to be the right deal.”

Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy is in London today for a series of meetings and briefings on the Haass process and part of that will be to press for a shift in the Government’s position. “Saying the proposals ‘have merit’ is not enough, nor is standing aside as if only a spectator and seeking to leave it to the parties,” he said.

But unionists show no sign that they will be moved by the Government. “If other parties are genuine about making this process work, then they need to sit down with us and work through all of the issues until we get agreement,” Jeffrey Donaldson said.

But all of the issues cannot be settled, or agreed, by the Executive parties. At some point, if this is to work, then the politicians will have to let go and, on the conflict years, let the narratives on the past be written within the proposed independent process and information commission. There is no sign of that happening yet; no sign that this initiative can be dug out of the political mud.