Posted By: January 08, 2015

Newton Emerson. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, January 8, 2015

DUP staffer and north Belfast councillor Lee Reynolds has written a fascinating blog
on the Haass talks, which he observed at close quarters as his party's note-taker.
Reynolds blames the failure one year ago mainly on Haass himself, accusing the US
diplomat of growing bored with the agenda and unwisely attempting to expand it,
spooking unionists who had "genuinely" been "up for an agreement". 

Blaming the referee might be easy but a simple explanation for last year's disaster
is required, now that the Stormont House Agreement has re-run Haass successfully
(and on Haass's agenda points, almost identically) despite a kitchen sink of further
issues and complications. 

In a Radio Ulster interview last month Haass was very undiplomatic about the
Unionists, so a falling-out presumably occurred. However, Reynolds does not add that
the Unionist parties would have been easily spooked due to the flag protests and
related Orange and Loyalist unrest. Did Stormont House succeed where Haass failed
because Peter Robinson gave the issues a 12-month cooling off period via the
Unionist forum and the graduated response? Or did success come from the Haass issues
being sidelined by the budget, as a deliberate or accidental British policy? 

The lack of clarity on what went wrong last year is feeding a sense that everything
is going wrong permanently, yet the Stormont House Agreement is a triumph that
should render Haass an odd little bump on the road. Five rival parties and two
governments competed a multi-dimensional deal against the clock, despite one of
those parties also rivalling the Irish government and the British government turning
up with a multi-dimensional agenda of its own. As an achievement it is easily on a
par with the St Andrews Agreement, from which it directly flows. Having struck a
deal, Sinn Féin and the DUP are backing it without reservation and there are signs
of even more progress to come. But that little Haass blip has unleashed all our
worst instincts for pessimistic gurning. 

Some perspective is required on politics as the art of the possible. There are still
a surprising number of people in Northern Ireland who believe that power-sharing
coalition government should give them everything they want - and not all of these
people are Loyalist bandsmen or dissident Republicans. 

A notable feature of the Stormont House talks were the legions of campaign groups
expressing their demands in terms of 'rights', which they therefore proclaimed to be
non-negotiable, although human rights are endlessly negotiable in law, politics and
practice. This absolutist sense of entitlement was heard around the issues of
culture, identity, language, dealing with the past and to a lesser extent the budget
and welfare reform. In the end the 
executive brushed all of it aside but it is rather pathetic that the 'rights
culture' we were promised as a guarantee of power-sharing has instead become a
nuisance to grown-up deal making. 

Even people who accept the inevitability of compromise can have heroically high
standards of detail and delivery. The Stormont House Agreement has been widely
criticised for kicking various cans down the road and balls into the long grass, as
if this is self-evidently appalling. However, in politics delay is often the wisest
course of action and at the very least it is always a legitimate strategy. Given
enough time, something else usually does turn up. If the unionist forum and the
graduated response helped to deliver last month's agreement, then the agreement is
itself the product of clever stalling. More kicking cans and balls, especially
orange balls, could be precisely the right thing to do. 

The sharpest critique of the executive has come from Danske Bank UK chief economist
Angela McGowan, who has accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of practising "Mickey Mouse
economics" by not setting out exactly what cuts and revenue raising will be
necessary over the next few years. 

These blank notes beneath Stormont's balance sheet might offend an accountant but as
DUP finance minister Simon Hamilton has pointed out, nobody is unaware that hard
choices are coming. 

It just makes little sense in political terms to create detailed hostages to fortune
now, especially when money is one of the things most likely to change down the road.

Lord knows this latest deal is not perfect but it contains nothing remotely as
stupid as Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy's election pledge to hire 1,000 more
nurses than the SNP, no matter how many that is. So cheer up, Northern Ireland. We
are better at this than the jocks.