Haass been. Done. Gone.



How is it that there were ‘Haass talks’ in the first instance?

To 2013, over a two to three year timescale, there had been a build up; an escalation of behaviour that would aggravate unease within unionism at all levels, in various manners.  This has been described as a ‘poke the Prods’ strategy: obviously poking until something breaks, and it would not matter what republican poked or when or where there would be blowback.

The background noise was a steady increase in urban interface attacks; small scale aggravation that would be nuisance value if infrequent, but cumulatively becoming a running sore. In rural areas, graffiti (or worse) attacks on Orange Halls are not infrequent. Without any visible ‘political’ voice to speak up for those communities ‘under attack’, to articulate concerns, frustration has always the potential to generate isolation, anger, or fear; and in time, all of that, unrestrained.

Additionally, there was the ramping up of the republican rhetoric in ways that were guaranteed to be an affront to unionists of any persuasion; the appointment of McArdle at DCAL.

Additionally, unionists were astonished at what might be considered ‘constitutional’ nationalism apparently happy to be associated with calculated effrontery. The naming of a children’s playpark in Newry and the vote in Dungannon calling for the release of a terrorist in the presence of the man’s victim, meant the subsequent vote on flags at Belfast City Council can only be considered in that wider context of insult. Contrary to portrayal on media channels, the insult was felt as acutely among middle-class, ‘garden-centre’, unionists every bit as much as among what has been be pejoratively termed the loyalist working class.

The 2013 Castlederg parade, marching along roads on which the IRA had murdered, contrasted with the opposition of Sinn Fein directed resident groups on the Ormeau Road and Portadown – opposition to parades framed as responses to murders at Sean Graham’s bookies and the ‘location’ of Rosemary Nelson’s office respectively; though in respect of the Loyal Orders, no suggestion that anyone on parade had taken part or been associated with those murders.

Sinn Fein created this ‘crisis’/impasse/breaking point that required resolution.  Sinn Fein has no particular need or particular interest in making the Northern Ireland Executive/Assembly work. Instability and chipping away at any sense of Constitutional settlement suits Sinn Fein’s longer agenda.

Over time, these actions created a sense that Sinn Fein was ‘setting the agenda’, able to act with impunity, and had the added benefit of making unionism (certainly its leadership) appear impotent and weak.

Why would Sinn Fein create a new context for crisis?

First, simply, because it can and has nothing to lose. More importantly, however, through local engagement on Parades issues over the past four to five years it has become increasingly apparent that Sinn Fein is unable to deliver on any agreement that might arise from dialogue. This has been particularly apparent, around Ardoyne at the 12th July. The reports from the Independent Monitoring Commission [link removed] and Independent Reviewer, Justice & Security [link removed] showed that the situation was being manipulated outside the control of Sinn Fein. Dialogue with Sinn Fein resident fronts are fine, but ultimately they cannot deliver peaceful accommodation.

The underlying strategy of republicans, of course, follows the earlier course of Sinn Fein itself – a careful generation of circumstances that ultimately erupted around Drumcree in the late 1990s (but also forgotten, at Ormeau, Newtownbutler, Londonderry, Castlederg, Dunloy and elsewhere). Republicans not part of the Sinn Fein machine focused initially on Ardoyne, but were fermenting disquiet elsewhere too. Sinn Fein’s response to the new wave republican was to embark on a strategy of widening the issue to dilute opponents within the nationalist/republican base and to shift ‘blame’, and apparent impotence and inertia in the face of extremism, upon unionism. New fronts were opened or reignited; Carrick Hill, Rasharkin, Short Strand, and indeed Castlederg – often to ursurp new wave inroads.

Sinn Fein needs to constantly maintain the fiction of the inevitability of a United Ireland and their rightful leadership of republican struggle. It must therefore sustain a constant measure of instability from which to again progress, on which to justify itself. This task becomes harder and harder with the war lost, the memory of armed struggle receding and a population it may believe naturally nationalist showing increasing signs of accommodation and satisfaction within the United Kingdom framework. Poking at the Prods (any poke by any republican is welcome) provides Sinn Fein prominent news time; when it frequently steps forward to demand action to address issues it has itself set in motion – the classic being JJ Magee’s internet video on Donegall Street.

So the stagnation at Executive level, coupled with street and local agitation created the circumstances of ‘crisis’. Not a huge crisis, but one which generates international attention and, most importantly, another round of ‘talks’.

Talks create the perfect place for Sinn Fein. Its ‘ideological’ approach is one of simplistic rhetoric, coupled with detailed attention to documentation – incidentally, assuring ticking time-bombs of dysfunction and future ‘crisis’; and around we go again.  Sinn Fein’s preparedness is in contrast to unionism’s rational practicality;  a practicality that is reactive, lacks any coherent agenda and gives little attention to the language of dialogue.

Indeed, Sinn Fein could be reasonably assured that in any ‘talks’ process that unionists would be as unprepared and unambitious as previously. Other than an end to the Parades Commission as currently constructed and in name, what else was sought by unionists through the Haass process?

On Flags:

There is never going to be agreement on flags etc. Unionism is not predisposed to seeing any reduction in the flying of the Union Flag. The removal of the Flag from Belfast City Hall, and its complete absence from nationalist dominated councils may be an affront, but the legal and constitutional status is undiminished. So, unless Unionist Parties wish to commit political suicide, no change here.  The flying of the Irish National Flag is a matter for the Taoiseach within the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland. With an end of Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution, confirmed by referendum post-1998, the Irish Flag has no official place in Northern Ireland; at the very least it would take a new referendum to change what the people of the Republic of Ireland have already endorsed.

On ‘the Past’:

On what has been termed ‘the past’, while the State may have records and resources to explain actions of its agents and employees this would be impossible to attain from terrorist organisations of whatever ilk. The IRA, the most murderous of those terrorist organisations, has already shown its inability to facilitate truth recovery; despite the allowances made on occasions referenced by Austen Morgan in this News Letter piece.

Austen Morgan presents an approach which reaches the same conclusion as the Attorney General’s view with respect to drawing a line under ‘Troubles’ prosecutions, except that Austen’s examples of interruptions to the Rule of Law have not been overwhelming successes.

  • The limited immunity for decommissioning was useful as far as it went, but IRA guns and explosives continue to pop up about the place.
  • We have not had resolution for all the families of the disappeared – about half so far, and we cannot be sure those that have been found is entirely the consequence of limited immunity.
  • The limited immunity of Saville, Smithwick etc has hardly been a path to the whole ‘truth’ – the whole picture of Bloody Sunday hides behind the IRA Code of Honour (whatever that is). Smithwick conclusions point to the limits of the process.
  • The instance of early prisoner release does not negate the sentence, and is no barrier to investigation or future prosecution – unless there was something that was unknown in this regard, or lost in time.

So the difficulties with suspending the Rule of Law as an aide to any ‘truth recovery process’ are: a) the route is not one proven to be successful; and b) that morally degrading the Rule of Law for political convenience is wrong, and adding another example to satisfy political convenience would be a triumph of hope over experience.

Unionists ought be more than reluctant to see any process that would put the State under singular scrutiny.

On Parades:

On the issue of Parades unionism seemed to want little more than an end of the Parades Commission in name. With such a low bar it is unsurprising that Draft 7 fails due diligence on human rights, not least on Freedom of Assembly, and presents a political minefield moving forward. That the deeply illiberal and fundamentally odious regulatory framework evident in Draft 7 of the Haass documentation could have reached that stage is startling.

A longstanding observation from those who initially undertook engagement with the first Parades Commission, and were prepared to open dialogue with residents groups, was the desire by Sinn Fein to seek a hierarchical body (such as itself) to ‘deal’ with. Sinn Fein sought a body which would be able to deliver (in effect dictate) a deal struck between Sinn Fein and itself. Initially, in Londonderry, Sinn Fein worked hard to link the main parades in the city to a number of local parades around the country. This is completely against the ‘local’ dialogue which Sinn Fein often demands, though Sinn Fein and contradiction are not unfamiliar to each other.

Of course, in a devolved scenario, with the DUP and Sinn Fein (and has the Orange Order spokesman not been on the DUP Haass delegation) the potential for that ‘deal’ process is within reach. Yet far from Haass being likely to diminish fracturing community relations on the back of parade issues, periodic escalation would likely become a norm to gain leverage in order to extract concessions at the Executive table. Discussion around parades would not longer be about the local situation, but about ‘the deal’.

The biggest fault-line in the proposals lie in contradiction of a process intended to assure freedom of expression should be so fundamentally assaulted by the notion that those parading must of themselves serve a wider socio-political goal; in effect that “the tradition of parading, protesting, and assembling be conducted in a way that contributes to the goal of building a shared and open society.”  Hitler or Stalin would have been proud of such a legal construct – the act of prescription itself undermining the desired free and open society.

Included in the Draft is of course the central expectation of ‘meaningful dialogue’ as a pathway to resolving parading issues. What does that phrase mean?  Did 1800 transcript pages of dialogue from numerous meetings across two years on the Ormeau Road by the local Apprentice Boys show lack of ‘meaningful’ engagement on their part? Similarly, does Loyal Order engagement as a component part of community dialogue (and constantly changing named resident groups put forward by Sinn Fein) not show both commitment and meaningful effort across 12 years searching for accommodation in Ardoyne? Apparently not, given the on-going erosion of 12th Parades along that arterial route that skirts part of Ardoyne, and no parades on the Ormeau Road below the Ormeau Bridge.

A central part of dialogue is the building of trust. On the part of republicans, dialogue has been used to identify community leaders – names ending up on an IRA list: part of the Denis Donaldson revelations. Regardless, dialogue was demanded with no concession to either republicans’ abuse of trust, or to the deep distress caused by a visit to your family home by the police to pass on an implicit warning contained on a single sheet of paper.

Dialogue is important, but it is no guarantor of an agreed outcome; in which case the Parades Commission is supposed to provide a view on what has taken place and outline a forward guide to what each party must work towards in moving forward. Such guidance is singularly absent from Determinations since the Chairmanship and Commission led by Sir Alistair Graham. Dialogue is demanded, but rarely engaged by republican groups.

There is no obvious redress within the Haass Draft to the past conduct of the Parades Commission procedural process being generally an offence to Natural Justice – a fundamental of the European Convention on Human Rights. While abrogation from basic Human Rights standards may be justified by some as ‘circumstances’ particular to Northern Ireland, surely that is by nature the same justification used by Putin in Russia in respect of laws on homosexuality – which isn’t banned in Russia, of course.

This is where there needs to be greater emphasis on the situation de facto against de jure. The Parades Commission is there to regulate a culture, pure and simple. It can be rightly stated that the law impacts on all Parades, but the out-working is clearly focused on a single culture, and in practice its impact is on a single culture. That said, the actual legislation is not at fault. A Code of Conduct already exists, and a part of the regulatory process which features in the consideration of the Parades Commission in reaching its Determinations. Time and again, parades which have not in any way failed to meet that Code of Conduct have been further diminished by subsequent Parades Commission Determinations – in effect ignoring natural justice and corrupting due process. Little wonder that there is deep suspicion of the potential use of a statutory Code of Conduct the breach of which would be a criminal offence, and move the Commission into a feature of the criminal process.

No doubt some might believe it is important to find some solution just to ‘bring the Orange Order in’. In to what? In Portadown and in other locations that is already happening, without sanction from Grand Lodge. The big question is ‘what is the gain for the Grand Lodge in changing its over-arching policy stance?’. Other than in Londonderry, local Apprentice Boys around the country continue to be frustrated in often long-running efforts in reaching accommodation through dialogue. For the Orange Order, offers of dialogue at Drumcree have been flatly rejected by ‘residents’, in effect demonstrating that there is a two tier, inequitable, process.

Ultimately, we also have to face that cultural organisations are being asked to jump through political hoops that are outside their remit or capacity to address in many cases.  As with policing, parades are often used as a political football to be kicked around for increasingly narrow Party gain, to the detriment of the whole of society as a whole.

Concluding on Parades, changing the name of the Parades Commission will not change anything. Divide the functions of the existing legislative/regulatory framework across more than one body, it still quacks. You can add to the existing functions and legislative/regulatory framework, it will quack louder and the impact on community relations will be all the more devastating.

Haassta la vista.

It is not clear  how progress on Haass would provide positive outcomes for any unionist party or its electorate. On the contrary it would more likely embed conditions for  future pain across all areas under discussion. There is neither the energy nor demand from the unionist electorate for progress based on Haass; nor its seems from anyone outside the political class, political rent-seekers, or NGO proxies (and then, mostly on pet aspects within the overall document). As a document, Haass Draft 7 is holds no foundation for agreement and is effectively a bed of sand on which all but the foolish would build.

What is the way forward?

That is a big question for Unionism. If anything is learned from Haass it is that the ‘process’ pathway is heading to the end of its usefulness. It has survived uneasily for some time on a diet of constructive ambiguity and unchallenged mantra, reaching a point when it is impeding any progress on what was hoped for post 1998.

To be able to move forward, however, requires unionism (or at least a unionist channel – party or otherwise) to regain the initiative with a new language for a new future –  breaking free from a political discourse in Northern Ireland over the past 40/50 years, broadly alien and antagonistic to unionism. It is time for Unionism to step out of its tactical silos and look at the bigger picture; the stores have been depleted, time for new planting and a new harvest.

Is that possible? Yes. Absolutely. Is this possible from within the existing and aspiring unionist parties? Or perhaps from outside the existing Parties? Anything is possible, however unlikely that might appear presently.




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