I found the response to the breakdown of the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations worse than the failure of the negotiations themselves – due to the nonsensically partisan nature of the immediate “blame game”, the blanket response blaming participants equally when in fact some where more to blame than others, and the failure to assess really why they had failed.
Firstly, we had the nonsensical blame game, as one UUP negotiator (who had in fact scarcely attended the key meetings) ludicrously tried to blame the Alliance Party for the lack of agreement (as if the four remaining parties couldn’t have gone ahead anyway!) – a farcical piece of evidence that all Unionists were interested in was supposed electoral gain rather than Northern Ireland’s common good.
Second, however, we then had the usual “Plague on all their houses”. Yet frankly there was a clear difference between the parties entering the negotiations. Unionists obviously (and, in my view, Republicans less obviously) went into them, as evidenced above, to prioritise their electoral prospects and thus their “side”. The Alliance Party, on the other hand, went in to seek a reasonable compromise on behalf of everyone – indeed it was, and remains, the only party capable of doing so.
Let me be clear here: I wouldn’t doubt that my own Institute’s submission, which I authored myself, is frequently distinct from and sometimes at odds with the position taken by the Alliance Party negotiating team. That is not the point here. What is the point is that the Alliance Party negotiators were seeking reasonable compromise on behalf of everyone, whereas the Unionist and Republican ones were not. The same actually applies with the flags issue thirteen months ago – Republicans created the issue to sow discontent; Unionists deliberately created mayhem; the Alliance Party did nothing other than seek the reasonable compromise it had long adopted as its party policy.
I have no difficulty with Unionists and Republicans challenging the above analysis; that is their right. I do have difficulty with supposed moderates lazily going along with the ludicrous “They’re all the same” / “Plague on all their Houses” analysis. They must be able to distinguish between what the Alliance Party was trying to do on one hand, and what Unionists and Republicans were trying to do on the other. They were not all the same – voters must now make that distinction in May.
I am increasingly convinced that the “Progressive” obsession with irrelevance and minor detail is a fundamental part of Northern Ireland’s political problem. You never hear DUP or Sinn Fein supporters openly opposing their Leadership’s or negotiators’ stances, even though everyone knows there is considerable difference of opinion in those parties on both policy and tactics. The DUP and Sinn Fein both know that divided parties – and indeed divided blocs – do not win elections. By splitting themselves up over the most irrelevant of minor details, Progressives and moderates broadly are making themselves and their representatives unappealing and unelectable – and thus ceding election after election to the DUP and Sinn Fein, the very groups they should be submitting all their energy to opposing.
Northern Ireland’s Unionists and Republicans have proved themselves indisputably incapable of compromise over the past five months or so. My real concern, however, is that Progressives and moderates do not seem to know how to compromise either – with each other. “Most people just want peace” wrote one correspondent I would define as both – but sadly I do not believe that to be the case. Most people want peace specifically on their own terms – and this includes Progressives, who are too busy competing with each other to realise that what they need is a Compromise of the Moderates and the submission of all their energies to defeating electorally the sectarian vested interests which head up almost all of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.
Thirdly, and most importantly of all, much of the subsequent commentary (again, particularly from moderates such as the Belfast Telegraph) suggested that any deal would have been better than no deal. I do not subscribe to this at all. A deal which simply kicked the issues into touch would unquestionably have been worse than an open acceptance that we just do not agree on these things.
To understand why failure was better than fudge, we need to stop dismissing issues such as “flags” as irrelevant. I do happen to think that politicians should be dealing with health reforms, education gridlock and welfare changes. However, symbols, parades and the past are extremely important – but they can never be dealt with by politicians.
Flags, parades, the past and so on are important because they strike at the very essence of who and what we are in Northern Ireland (as per the submission I authored). A lot of us think we know what Northern Ireland is; we may even think we agree what it is; but I suspect neither of those is true – the latter certainly isn’t. I have written countless times that what is “obvious” to one individual in Northern Ireland is often completely hidden (and unacceptable) to another individual. If you like, one man’s assumption is another man’s unacceptable outrage. We haven’t overcome that. We need to. But it’s up to us, not the politicians.