Posted By: September 14, 2013

Haass's Herculean task after summer shambles

 William Scholes. Irish News(Belfast). Thursday, September 13, 2013

AS they sashayed down a New york sidewalk for the television cameras this week,
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness cut quite a dash.
It wasn't quite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse but
with a little imagination - or maybe it was just the angle at which I was sitting -
the first and deputy first minsters even looked like they might be channelling their
inner John travolta, acting out Tony Manero's Stayin' Alive strut from Saturday
Night Fever. Even if they weren't, you could tell by the way they used their walk,
they were important men, with no time to talk. They had, however, talked to each
other for the first time following a disastrous summer back home. Those talks were
apparently "useful", though that doesn't really reveal much - a toaster is useful.
They also spoke to existing and potential investors, a task presumably made much
more difficult after the marching season. Even so, it probably wasn't as tough as
that facing US diplomat Richard haass, with whom Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness also
Mr haass has been given what could have doubled as the 13th labour of hercules,
namely helping our politicians find agreement on parades, the past and flags.
It's good that the talking has started, though a public wearied by yet another
summer of sectarianism will be justly sceptical that it will actually lead to
Against the sadly all-too-predictable backdrop of parades-inspired violence,
continuing Orange Order intransigence and a multi-million-pound policing bill, the
deeply unhelpful IRA commemoration in Castlederg formed one half of a double-dip
recession in community relations. the other was Mr Robinson's decision to pull the
plug on his support for the Maze peace centre.
Distance, they say, lends perspective. So, having been effusive in his promotion of
the Maze project, there was every hope that the first minister - who managed to make
himself very distant indeed by decamping to Florida during the summer - might emerge
from his chrysalis among the orange groves, like a sort of Dundonald man from Del
Monte, with a fresh approach to the problems back home. Unfortunately his only
intervention during an antediluvian summer served to further contaminate the
atmosphere into which Mr haass will arrive next week. The Maze was always going to
be an ambitious project. Things worth doing often are. The DUP leader's backing, in
the face of opposition, much of it knee-jerk, from a spectrum of unionist opinion
was a welcome example of the sort of leadership that the community as a whole has
the right to expect from the top man in an executive that is, after all, supposed to
govern for all. Unfortunately, we now know that Mr Robinson was using time during
his weeks in Florida to dig a tunnel out of the Maze for the DUP. He announced the
U-turn in a 12-page letter to DUP politicians, deploying capitalised words with the
sort of abandon seen in the more colourful contributions to a newspaper editor's
postbag. His letter from America - not to be confused with Alistair Cooke's epistles
- didn't so much gently bring the Maze juggernaut to a halt as pull a handbrake turn
and accelerate hard in the opposite direction. The cloud of smoke he left behind
suggests the tyres have already been stashed with some old pallets for an eleventh
night bonfire next July.
By then, will anything have really changed? Mr haass has been set a near-impossible
task with a December deadline and while he tries to marshal the talks, the signs on
the streets aren't encouraging, including the latest crackpot plan to march 5,000
loyalists through Belfast city centre on Saturday September 21.
Amid the doom and gloom, initiatives such as the hope and history campaign
(www.hopeandhistory.com) offer a glimmer of positivity and a reminder that there is
another way.
With the haass talks about to start, this cross-church group has the simple aim of
encouraging politicians and society "to seek the common good at this most opportune
of times".
Agreeing what is in "the common good" has long been one of Northern Ireland's
biggest problems. Whatever it is, it surely can't be allowing a repeat of this
summer's shambles. the assembly, back in session this week, set a discouraging tone
with the dreary spectacle of two days of fractious whataboutery in the chamber.
All hopes, then, seem to be on Mr haass. As he flies across the Atlantic Ocean
towards his Augean stables in Belfast, he may well wish he had gone to Florida