Richard Haass, the American diplomat who is chairing talks on flags, parades and dealing with the past, concluded his initial consultations yesterday, saying that “there is a real chance to succeed” before the end of December.
Haass and his vice chair Meghan O’Sullivan have already received 100 submissions and had 30 meetings with delegations from the political parties and civic society. Anyone and everyone are invited to make a written submission to the process by 27 September.
I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s “Inside Politics” yesterday evening discussing the talks, along with commentator Fionnuala O’Connor, the SDLP’s Alex Atwood, and the UUP’s Jeffrey Dudgeon.
In a press conference yesterday, O’Sullivan said that of the three issues the past may be the most difficult to get a handle on – although as O’Connor pointed out during our discussion, agreement on any of the issues would be progress. O’Sullivan said:
The past seems to be in a different category, and that seems to be the assessment not only of ourselves but of virtually everyone we speak with.
It is much more nebulous, it has to address a wider range of issues, and there are so many different models that can be approached that have been used here in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the world.
It seemed to me Dudgeon tried to deflect discussion away from the importance and even the possibility of addressing the past.
But I think the long shadow cast by the past is the fundamental issue underlying the talks. The failure to devise an overarching and systematic process for dealing with the past has been one of the main failures of politics since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Civic society was consulted widely by the Consultative Group on the Past, and the range of proposals on offer in its 2009 “Eames Bradley Report” was to me evidence that victims, survivors and even some citizens who would not think of themselves as victims or survivors recognize that it is simply impossible to “draw a line under the past” and forget about it.
As Haass said at the press conference, there is not an intellectual deficit when it comes to options for addressing our outstanding issues. This is certainly the case with options for dealing with the past, as illustrated by the Eames Bradley Report and through the various grassroots initiatives that already happen on a small scale, with or without political support.
Picking up on a point made by Atwood, I said during the discussion that civic society groups should see the Haass Talks as an opportunity to speak up again about how we should move forward – especially if that includes a constructive, civil discussion on how we remember our history.
My sense is that those who were consulted by the Consultative Group on the Past have felt discouraged that the Report was dismissed outright after the controversy around proposed recognition payments. It’s just not good democracy when those who hold political power are unresponsive to some of the most vulnerable people in society – like our victims of violence.
At another point in the interview, Dudgeon seemed to imply that civic society should be kept further away from the talks, as it is the politicians who are elected to represent the people. There wasn’t time to raise this during the programme, but a poll earlier in the week showed that Stormont has an approval rating of just 9%. To me, that’s not much of a mandate, and signals that a lot of people in Northern Ireland feel that their views are not represented by their politicians, or they are not happy with the way politicians are leading on flags, parades and dealing with the past. Maybe civic society better represents the perspectives of that swathe of opinion?
Civic society should push our own political parties, as well as Haass and O’Sullivan, not to give up on the past because it is just too complex or too difficult.
I think the past will indeed be the hardest of the three very difficult areas to make progress on, especially by the end of December. We have had since 1998 to think about how we might best remember the past; after so long it will not be decided in a few months. I also think the past cannot be addressed without significant commitment from the British and Irish governments.