Posted By: September 22, 2013

Another Belfast columnist casts a cold eye.


Patrick Murphy.Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, September 21, 2013
PREPARE yourselves for the next milestone in our long and repetitive history – the Christmas Eve Agreement. (Think of it as the Good Friday Agreement with decorations.) As we head into an autumn of mists and mellow fruitlessness (no, that is not a mistake) the more weary among us can foresee our sectarian soap opera twisting and turning its way to a late night Christmas special, directed by what will then be an ageing Richard Haass. This is not to suggest that there will be real agreement. Like the outcomes on Good Friday and at St Andrews, we can expect a vague and ambiguous verbal compromise, which will be sold as a victory for both sides. We shall then be expected to fall down and adore our latest political saviour. Of course the Europa talks may reach a settlement before Christmas, but ‘The Halloween Agreement’ does not quite have the same ring to it (too pagan for our Christians politics). So, we might just have the Europa Agreement but the smart money is on a television Christmas special, with all your old favourites indulging in self-congratulatory backslapping. (No, you cannot have the Women’s Coalition repeating their Good Friday Agreement (GFA) jumping-for-joy routine. Apparently they have retired.)Yes, it all sounds a bit cynical but it is hard to avoid the observation that what passes for politics here goes through an approximate seven-year cycle of optimism, complacency, delay and despair. It was eight years from the GFA to St Andrews and seven years from St Andrews to now. This cycle is inevitable for three reasons. The first is that our system of governance, in which everyone has a veto, can agree only on the generalised, the universally bland and the irrelevant. (This is helpful because many local politicians lack the ability to progress beyond bland. Although, in fairness, most of them do bland very well.)

Since our system of government cannot work, only nine per cent of people here think that Stormont is doing a good job. (A Belfast branch of the Taliban would be no less popular.) Secondly, crisis talks offer politicians here their last remaining chance at relevance. Since returning from their summer holidays, MLAs have debated a day of recognition for the emergency services, praised free school meals and supported the ministerial pledge of office. (How’s that for high-quality blandness?)

Since Stormont cannot govern, it tries to rule instead. (Never mind child poverty, let’s talk flags.) So the third reason for our inevitable cycle of failure is the need for distraction. Who cares about the Housing Executive scandal when senior diplomats are coming from America to talk about social segregation? (That’s the same America where black men make up 12 per cent of the population but 40 per cent of those are in prison. Who is leading negotiations on tackling that one?) While Mr Haass and his team are welcome, their arrival confirms our innate desire for foreigners to praise us. (The SDLP even suggested that Mr Haass should impose his own ideas here in a form of direct rule from Washington.) It also suggests Stormont’s political leaning towards the US Republican Party, which shamefully opposed President Obama’s health care initiative. Mr Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan both worked as special advisers to George W Bush (a president who certainly needed special assistance). Ms O’Sullivan also formerly advised Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (You must remember Mitt. He was the man who complained that we cannot open windows in aeroplanes. Yes, Mitt needed a lot more than advice.) Forgive us, but it is hard to take seriously those who took Bush and Romney seriously. So our first and deputy first ministers picked a US team which, by our standards, is likely to hold right-wing views on society and economy. Thus the Haass team is unlikely to point out that one of the problems of the past is our past 15 years of Stormont misrule in social and economic policy and its emphasis instead on sectarian differences. That failure has contributed significantly to today’s problems on flags and parades. Only a governing Stormont can address it.

But, you say, the talks might fail. Americans do not do failure (don’t mention Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan) and if Stormont fails on this one, it will become totally redundant. So prepare for the Christmas hype: “amazing breakthrough”; “last minute agreement”; “working party established on on-going dialogue”; “something achieved, a lot more to be done”. Child poverty in West Belfast stands at 43 per cent. It will still be 43 per cent when the talks are over.