What struck me as curious about the response of non-DUP unionists/loyalists to Peter Robinson’s backtracking on support for a ‘peace building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, was the delight they took in the political and media discomfort it was causing him.
Indeed, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that there was a quiet rubbing of hands in some quarters and a flickering hope that this would divert a substantial number of votes from the DUP to them. Actually, I think that’s unlikely: there may be some shifting, but not enough to dislodge the DUP from its top-dog position. Anyway, that’s the subject for another column.
The anti-Maze lobby may have had their pound of flesh, but I’m not convinced we’re anywhere closer to resolving the problem. Regular readers will know that I’m against a ‘peace centre’ at the Maze. I’m against it because I think it would become a shrine of some sort: and not just for the IRA either. I wouldn’t bulldoze the remaining buildings. I would leave them: leave them to decay and crumble. A fading reminder of the futility of terrorism. A fading reminder that neither paramilitary side actually ‘won’ their so-called war. A fading reminder that a dark, bitter, bloody past can, quite literally, turn to dust.
But I’m also against a ‘peace centre’ anywhere in Northern Ireland now, or anytime soon. We don’t have peace in the accepted sense of the term. We don’t have a united society. We don’t have an agreed Programme for Government. We don’t have genuine power-sharing at the heart of government. We either vote for us-and-them parties, or don’t vote at all. We educate, socialise and pray apart. Our towns and villages remain divided.
Our political/electoral centre ground picks up less than 10 per cent of the vote (and don’t forget that that 10 per cent is just 10 per cent of the just over 50 per cent who can be bothered to vote!).
So why kid ourselves, let alone try and kid the rest of the world, that we should build a ‘peace-building and reconciliation centre’? We can barely talk to each other across the Assembly chamber or executive table, so why does anyone think it would be any better if we built a spanky new centre and allowed people to tell their stories?
We need a Parades Commission to adjudicate on parades because our government can’t do it: and then both sides still complain when they don’t get the result they want. A weekend away was organised in Cardiff a few months ago and, on the Sunday evening, the parties and PSNI waved an ‘agreement’ in front of the waiting cameras. Yet the agreement didn’t withstand first contact with the first parade. We have invited Richard Haass to broker a deal because, it seems, we can’t talk without the presence of a headmaster figure or referee.
If I were Mr Haass I would gather all of the parties and assorted hangers-on around the table at 9am on the first Monday morning and give them a very simple ultimatum: ‘Meet me on Tuesday morning at 9am and give me one collectively agreed, convincing, credible reason for my hanging around here for the next few weeks. Give me one simple, unambiguous piece of evidence that you – all of you – are serious about a deal. And if you can’t manage something that straightforward then shake hands with me and say goodbye. I can’t fix anything, or broker anything, if I don’t have some concrete proof that you guys are actually serious. I’ll see you in the morning: I’m off now for an Ulster fry and game of pool with Alex Kane.’
Ok, the last suggestion is optional! But my point is this: I sense no great desire on the part of any of the mainstream parties of unionism and republicanism to reach a deal. The DUP can’t sign off on anything without the support of the parading elements (and that includes the Orange Order and Bands’ Forum). This can’t simply be a DUP/Sinn Fein deal this time: and that means that the TUV, PUP and some of the newer elements of loyalism will want an input, too. Similarly, Sinn Fein has to be mindful of the ‘needs’ of dissidents and self-styled residents’ groups. In other words, this isn’t so much about finding a deal acceptable to the Assembly parties as about finding a deal acceptable to parties, groups and organisations whose main impact is on the streets.
The pressures on the two big parties, and particularly the DUP, are going to be enormous. Because they don’t trust each other (and please, forget all the nonsense about good personal relations and behind the scenes cooperation) they will give nothing to each other. They won’t/can’t make life easy for each other. They won’t/can’t stand up to the more belligerent elements from their own sides. They will, inevitably, listen to the sound of the street rather than the beat of compromise and commonsense. And that’s why Richard Haass needs proof – right from the start – that the will to construct a deal really does exist.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s an argument for rebooting the Civic Forum? There needs to be somewhere where all of the competing voices can make their case. Not only make their case, but also be subjected to rigorous scrutiny and questioning.
There are some groups – who don’t have any elected representatives – who want to be treated as though they already had a mandate. Well, they don’t and can’t. But they probably do deserve to be heard and probed.
In my view that’s probably a more sensible way of dealing with outstanding problems than the whole Haass hoopla. Put bluntly, if the main parties can’t – and haven’t – sorted it out, then perhaps they should find a vehicle, which may (and it’s only a may) be able to help?