Posted By: January 04, 2014

The Belfast commentator takes a hard look at the Haass Talks, which ended without success.


Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, January 4, 2014.
SORRY to spoil a good wake but, now that they have passed away peacefully in our sleep, the Haass talks will not be missed. With no disrespect to our American guests, the talks were irrelevant to our daily lives and a smokescreen for a failing system of government.Does anyone believe, for example, that designated days for flying flags are relevant to the thousands of our young people who labour every day under the flags of Australia, the US and dozens of other countries across the globe? The generation which has been failed by Stormont may never return to this country. When will their designated days come?

When will Stormont invite US envoys to examine our failed education system, our collapsing health service, and our shameful record on the environment? The Haass document did not say, “Sectarianism is wrong. Let us oppose it.” It proclaimed: “Sectarianism is quaint. Let us accommodate it.” In doing so, the talks once again placed normal politics in deep-freeze, apparently absolving Stormont of its government responsibilities. Our politicians could then bask in the pious pomposity of tackling a problem, which is fed by their political systems and structures and symbolised by flags – mainly withered rags flapping on lamp-posts like pattern day offerings to the great god of sectarianism. Oh dear, you say, that is all a bit harsh. True, but unemployment, poverty and emigration are even more harsh. However, let us take your point and examine the Haass document at face value.

The paper is a cross between a 1950s tourist brochure (“Northern ireland is blessed by many advantages and virtues”) and a Stormont public relations pamphlet, which claims we have “world-class educational institutions”. (No, we don’t. Our young people rank 19th out of 24 countries in numeracy and literacy. Our universities are not remotely close to being the best in Ireland, never mind the world.) It is a well-written document, which is a fine example of how difficult it is to translate academic logic into the harsh reality of real-world sectarianism. (Ivy league university meets Twaddell Avenue. Guess who won?)

Fine writing cannot disguise the document’s inherent futility. It is as if two Americans stumble across an isolated community, which believes the earth is flat. Instead of offering evidence to the contrary, our intrepid explorers agree to draw up proposals on how and where to build fences at the earth’s edge, so that no one will fall off.

For example, it devotes a paragraph to the importance of elected representatives upholding the law. That’s right – two Americans spent six months writing a paper proposing that politicians uphold the law. It is sad, but cruelly fascinating, to witness two fine minds reduced to participating in an Alice in Ulster-land exercise.

Parading is “an area of life” (honestly) within “Northern ireland’s unique culture” (God help us) although “parading and marching (what’s the difference?) are an important part of many people’s culture.” That’s a lot of culture – with no definition of the word. Meanwhile “Many continue to await the end of sectarianism”, which makes it sound like a Number 39 bus. The paper also mentions that the North might “join with Ireland”, suggesting that we are a free-floating piece of political polystyrene bobbing about in the North Atlantic.

The Parades Commission would be replaced by the office for Parades, Select Commemorations (sounds like the Ferrero Rocher of flag waving) and Related Protests. (Why use three words when nine will do?) it is a proposal to replace Twaddell Dum with Twaddell Dee. Select commemorations, apparently, are events “in which the participants are moving or stationary”.

(What other categories are there? Semi-stationary? Moving when no one is looking?)

The Commission would be supported by The Authority for Public events Adjudication. (Why have one body when you can have two?) it would determine the historical and traditional nature of a proposed parade route. How would you establish the historical nature of a route? (“it’s a bit iron Age with interesting Celtic influences and some early Christian monasticism thrown in”?)

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’ Neill, was taken to court last week by Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, to prevent her sensibly investing in rural development, in line with England, Scotland and Wales. Hamilton won because, the judge ruled, she did not bring her policy to the executive. He might have observed that if Minister O ‘Neill had brought the executive a plate of sandwiches, she would have been rejected.

So while Alice’s adventures continue in Ulster-land, we have administration through litigation. Would that be one of Northern Ireland’s advantages – or just another of its many virtues?