Missed opportunity of signing pact leaves DUP with questions to answer

Posted By: January 02, 2014

Dr Haass’s paper contains impressive, progressive but modest proposals

 Gerry Moriarty. Irish Times. Thursday, Jan 2, 2014

 It’s worth reading the final Richard Haass document on dealing with the past, parades and flags in full.

Its 39 pages, which can be viewed here, are clear, concise and well-written. When readers come to the end, the question most will ask themselves is, “why in God’s name did Peter Robinson and the DUP not endorse what would have been the 2013 New Year’s Eve agreement?”

The paper contains impressive, progressive but modest proposals.

If the DUP had no real intention of running with the agreement, why, after Dr Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan had laboured until 4.30am with the parties on Christmas Eve morning, did they bring them back from the US for more failed negotiations up until New Year’s Eve morning?

It’s almost baffling.

The suspicion among most political observers is that Robinson is afraid of the threat from the right flank of unionism.

He faces European and local elections in May and, the theory goes, adopting this paper would have allowed hardline unionists to steal votes and maybe a few council seats from the DUP.


Inclusive society

Robinson is known for his tactical nous but an equally valid and perhaps better argument could be

advanced that endorsing the agreement would have gained him votes. It would have strengthened his bona fides in claiming he wants to create a more tolerant and harmonious Northern Ireland.

This does the opposite. That hardline right is represented by one man: Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, who is his party’s only Assembly member. Should a First Minister be in thrall to a single MLA? The focus here is on Robinson and the DUP because if they had signed up to the pact we would have a deal.

The four other parties had various reservations but it seems close to certain they all would have gone along with the proposals. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams endorsed the paper on New Year’s Eve morning while SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell more or less said acceptance was a formality. David Ford and Naomi Long complained about such limited proposals on parading and flags while welcoming the movement on the past, but they know that one-third of a loaf is better than no loaf.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt majored on the failure to deliver an effective acknowledgment from Sinn Féin that the IRA, as well as other republican and loyalist paramilitaries, had waged a campaign of “terrorism”.


Seventh Haass draft

But everyone including Nesbitt must know that Sinn Fé

in would not make such an admission. On Sunday Nesbitt said the talks were “80 to 90 per cent over the line”. He hardly could have walked away. It all comes back to Robinson. What must be remembered is that the final Haass paper was its seventh draft. As one talks insider said, between draft one and draft seven it was “stripped like a turkey on Boxing Day”. Most of that carving was done to suit the DUP, according to talks sources. And it’s highly questionable whether any more meat can be taken from the bone.

This continuing holiday season is not the most propitious time for public discussion, but in the coming weeks it will be debated. Locally through radio and TV, in the newspapers and on the web people will start getting a feel for its contents. Broadly they will learn that it contains proposals that could help victims while also achieving greater truth about the past. They will see that while the issue of flags could not be resolved, at least there is a plan to form a commission with a wider remit of addressing in the next year or two issues of identity, culture and tradition. They will question whether new proposed structures on parading would have any better chance of success than the current Parades Commission arrangement.

Some will be disparaging about the limited nature of the paper but most should see that, while imperfect, it means Northern Ireland continues to move forward – that it marks progress that should not be casually dismissed. Then it will be for Robinson to heed or reject that message.

The First Minister was careful not to close any doors yesterday, agreeing to Haass’s suggestion to form a working group to try to resolve outstanding differences, while warning that momentum must not be lost.

Momentum has been lost, but can be reactivated. It would be very poor politics indeed if there is not more life in this document. Who knows for sure, but we might yet see Dr Haass and Prof O’Sullivan back here to see the proposals – as set or very lightly “refined” – adopted