Article on the Haass Talks

Posted on in Northern Ireland

This is an article that was first published on the 'Compromise after Conflict' Website.

Consensus not Imposition is the way to a Shared Future

Dr Richard Haass and Dr Meghan O'Sullivan have returned to the USA but they have done Northern Ireland a good service.  When they accepted the invitation of all five Executive parties they had no illusions about the scale of the task.  They worked conscientiously to find a way forward but this process was always about the parties reaching agreement by sufficient consensus and so far that has not been acheived.

For significant sections of Unionism the ever lengthening list of parades disputes, in particular the targeting of Belfast parades, had sapped belief in Nationalist commitment to shared space.  Sinn Fein and SDLP may demand shared government but seem unwilling to ask Nationalist communities to share something as basic as a road.   A new start on parades was needed.

Nationalism, not Unionism, then chose to put the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall on the political agenda.  Throughout they were warned of the risks but they carried on, despite their apparent acceptance of the sovereign position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.   Consensus politics and community relationships paid the price and the Spotlight poll made crystal clear the depth and broad based nature of the anger among Unionists about that decision. Minimalism or abolition of Britishness is not the way to build a shared future. 

When the IRA murdered men, women and children it was for a united Ireland, not a new Stormont.  Their violent campaign failed to achieve its ultimate goal and therefore, to justify what they had done, the IRA now seek to re-write history. Let us not forget that of those who died in the Troubles approximately 60% lost their lives at the hands of republicans, 30% died at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries and 10% by the actions of the state.  The organisation most likely to murder a Catholic or brutalise them and abuse their basic human rights was the Provisional IRA, not the RUC, UDR or any other state organisation.  Yet 90% of the focus is upon the 10% of the deaths involving the state.  This is no way to deal with our troubled past and is certainly no way to encourage true reconciliation. 

The political institutions in Northern Ireland that the DUP and others have worked so hard to create and embed cannot flourish to such a backdrop. The principle of sufficient consensus upon which Stormont operates must ultimately work it's way on to our streets and into local communities.  One side imposing it's will on the other is precisely the opposite of such a consensus and in a divided society like ours a deliberate and substantial provocation in our capital city will have a consequence beyond it.  Equally, if the murder of the past is allowed to be justified, then we are condemning our children to its repetition. 

Thus, the DUP approached Haass with the view that the status quo was unacceptable, unhealthy and unsustainable. It set itself the goal of maximising progress on all three issues.  As regards any agreement, we followed the approach we had adopted throughout the process.  We would not say yes to anything or no to everything but would say yes to what is right.

In the end the final draft did not offer the level of progress needed on the three issues.  On parades, new structures were offered but Alliance and Nationalist demands for the imposition of draconian rules that would affect every parade and public assembly in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they were deemed controversial or not, meant this did not constitute a new start.  A legalistic approach is not what is needed.  The answer lies in local dialogue, leading to local agreements, where respect and tolerance on both sides are the mark of how we deal with this sensitive issue.  That is the way to build a consensus and a shared future, with shared space.  Creating no-go areas and entrenching the effective ghettoisation of our capital city is no solution and only serves to play into the hands of the dissenting voices who oppose the peace process. 

On flags, Nationalism was unwilling to offer anything but more talk.  It beggars belief that Nationalists and Alliance are unwilling to tolerate the flying of the Union Flag on a single public building in our capital city for more than a handful of days in the year.  Such disrespect for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland goes to the heart of the problem - Alliance and Nationalists say they accept the principle of consent and the will of the people yet they pay lip service to the result of that settled will and in some cases, cannot even bring themselves to say the name of Northern Ireland.  Meantime, they demand greater recognition of the Irish identity.  The proposal for a commission on identity is welcome but unless there is a change of mindset and a willingness to give Britishness its place in a shared community, the prospect for progress is diminished.

On dealing with the legacy of our troubled past, there was undoubtedly progress made.  Some of the proposals would offer equal treatment for innocent victims and provide them with a better opportunity of obtaining justice.  However, issues such as the handling of coroners' inquests left the door open for a return to hierarchy and imbalance.  There also remain concerns to be resolved around the legal definition of some of the proposed structures, the period they will cover in terms of victims pre and post-agreement and how they will operate.  We are clear that this process cannot and will not be about rewriting the history of the troubles in a perverse attempt to justify acts of terrorism.  In the end, it must be a victim-centred process and the key judgement on proposals for dealing with the past lie with victims, not with politicians.

Overall, these discussions are about five political parties who are sharing power in government and the need to determine where we are taking Northern Ireland.  Some parties made the mistake of thinking this process was about negotiating with Richard Haass and not with each other.  An agreement that is written in the image of one side of our divided community will not achieve the consensus that is required to take us all forward.  We remain at the table and will work for as long as it takes to resolve these issues and reach agreement.  The status quo is not an option, nor is an imposed solution that lacks cross-community support.  Nationalists and the Alliance Party often talk about sufficient consensus.  If we want a shared future, we have to share the burden of dealing with these issues and we have to share an understanding of how they are to be resolved.  That is what consensus politics is about, whether in City Hall or in the halls of Stormont.  As Martin Luther King Jr said "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus."

Jeffrey Donaldson is the MP for Lagan Valley and led the DUP team in the recent Haass talks.

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