The former US diplomat who chaired an ill-fated bid to resolve outstanding peace process issues in Northern Ireland has expressed concern over a potential return to serious violence if issues from the past are not dealt with.
Dr Richard Haass, whose efforts to negotiate a deal on long standing disputes on flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the Troubles ended on New Year’s Eve without consensus, insisted a recent Stormont controversy over on-the-run republicans was not an excuse for political leaders to walk away from continuing efforts to make progress.
Addressing a Congressional committee in Washington, he urged politicians to “act for the greater good” and face up to the fact they could not achieve everything they wanted.
“I don’t see the society sowing the seeds of its own normalisation, of its own unity, if neighbourhoods and schools are still divided,” said Dr Haass.
“What worries me in that kind of an environment, particularly where politics are not shown to be making progress, alienation will continue to fester and violence, I fear, could very well re-emerge as a characteristic of daily life.
“So it is premature to put Northern Ireland, as much as we would like to, into the ‘out box’ of problems solved.
“I’d love for it to be there and I look forward to that day, but quite honestly it is not there yet.”
While blueprint proposals emerging from Dr Haass’s cross party talks process remain on the table, efforts to strike a deal in his absence have made little progress and, arguably, have gone backwards.
One of the five parties involved - the Ulster Unionists - withdrew from negotiations on the proposals last week in the wake of the latest crisis to rock the power-sharing institutions at Stormont, triggered when details emerged about a deal Sinn Fein had struck with the Government that saw on-the-run republicans sent letters telling them they were not wanted by police.
Announcing the move, UUP leader MIke Nesbitt accused Sinn Fein of “bad faith” in their handling of the issue.
The controversy developed when a case against a man accused of the IRA bombing of Hyde Park collapsed because he was mistakenly sent one of the so-called assurance letters stating he was not wanted by the authorities. But unionist politicians focused their fury on the fact a process to send letters out existed in the first place - claiming it was concocted by Sinn Fein and the previous Labour government without their knowledge.
Both the republican party and representatives from the previous and current governments in London have insisted the letters did not amount to an amnesty, and were only statements of fact that, at the time of writing, authorities were not seeking certain individuals - a situation that could change if new evidence emerged.
Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered a judge-led review into the scheme.
Dr Haass said his only knowledge of the letters came from the public exchanges since the issue gained prominence in recent weeks.
But he expressed confidence that they had not granted effective immunity to recipients.
“In short, the letters did not offer amnesty,” he said, before making a comment many will interpret as being directed at Mr Nesbitt.
“I know of nothing in their content that would justify anyone walking away from the process we are discussing here today.”
He told congressmen that there was a real “urgency” to deal with divisive issues that remained in Northern Ireland.
“The passage of time will not heal Northern Ireland’s society,” he said. “To the contrary, absent of political progress, the passage of time will only create an environment in which social division intensifies, violence increases, investment is scared off, alienation grows and the most talented depart.
“Northern Ireland is often cited as a model of peace building, but this is premature. Yes, the society has come a long way from where it was two decades ago, but it still has a long ways to go before it sets an example others will want to emulate.
“I hope Northern Ireland’s leaders are up to the challenge.”
Dr Haass expressed fear that if progress was not made, Northern Ireland, which he said was not remotely like a “normal society” yet, might take a step back to its troubled past.
He explained he was concerned any further outbreaks of public disorder, like those witnessed in Northern Ireland last year linked to disputes on flags and parades, would create an environment in which renewed paramilitary violence could emerge, noting that the Troubles had first started when so-called political violence intensified into full scale conflict.
“I do not want to see history repeat itself,” he said.