Northern Ireland is in big trouble, and Haass can’t fix it

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In a few weeks’ time Richard Haass will fly in to chair a talks process covering ‘contentious’ issues like flags, parades, protests, symbols, emblems and dealing with the past. He hopes to be able to present a set of recommendations supported by all of the parties before the end of the year.

But I’ll tell you something for nothing: there will be no all-party agreement on parades. Oh yes, there will be a form of words and understandings, but like the strategy which emerged at the end of the Cardiff talks a few months ago the proposals won’t withstand first contact with on-the-street reality.

The Castlederg ‘celebration’ (and when you have people dressed in paramilitary gear there’s really no other word you can use) may have angered many people in the pro-Union community – but that was merely a propaganda bonus for the organisers: for that celebration was primarily a reminder to Sinn Fein supporters that the ‘struggle’ goes on. There may still be a border and Ireland may still be as far away as ever from unification, but Sinn Fein has to plough on with the pretence (and, again, there is no other word for it) that they are winning.

That’s the nature of propaganda. It’s nearly always aimed at your own side rather than the other. It’s about keeping your core voters and supporters convinced that progress is being made. If your opponents react with anger, violence and a why-are-they-getting-away-with-it response, then so much the better. Indeed, their reaction becomes a key component of your propaganda.

Parades/commemorations/celebrations matter in Northern Ireland. They matter because they are omnipresent, highly visible manifestations and consequences of unfinished political business. And, to be honest, it’s been unfinished business since that moment in the late 12th century when Henry II sent his forces to Ireland. Nothing since that moment has ever been recognised or accepted as a final settlement. Moments like the Plantation, the 1798 rebellion, the Act of Union, the Third Home Rule Bill, the Easter Rising, the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement (complete with the St Andrews add-ons) come and go down the centuries. Yet we never seem to reach the stage at which we can all agree that we have arrived at our final destination.

Instead, we reach yet another stalemate: and being a stalemate both sides continue with their separate campaigns to get what they want – and to hell with the others! That’s why flags, symbols, emblems, painted kerbs, murals, banners and cultural icons also matter so much to us. They are part and parcel of a mindset in which we constantly have to remind ourselves – and our opponents – who we are.

While some plucky souls may try and sing ‘this land is your land, this land is my land’, most people prefer to respond with ‘this bit is my bit, that bit is your bit’. We don’t want to look at ourselves from the other person’s perspective, because that would mean having to stand on his land, maybe even in his shoes.

So there’s another issue the Haass talks won’t be able to resolve. Not because we can’t talk about the issues (that’s easy enough to do), but because we don’t actually want to reach a compromise and a consensus. Let me nuance that: we have reached a consensus already, a consensus reflected in the fact that we either vote for us-and-them parties or else don’t bother voting and allow the us-and-them parties to promote division without serious opposition.

So, if Haass is unlikely to broker any agreement on parades, flags, emblems and commemorations, what’s the likelihood he can deliver anything on legacy issues and dealing with the past? None. Zero. Nil. Zilch. In one sense it’s OK for both sides to say that there are different narratives, but when the narratives are competing and leading to different conclusions then it’s not going to be possible to agree. And nor can you agree to disagree, because how do you build a shared future on that basis?

Also – as I keep asking – how do you build a shared future when both sides will always disagree on the geographical boundaries and constitutional future of the very country they both share?

Why is Richard Haass coming? Why is someone with his background and pedigree coming here to talk to a collection of people who seem incapable of even the basic civilities required for everyday cooperation? Or, putting it another way, what does his willingness to come here tell us about the state of the peace/political process?

It tells us that we are in big, big trouble here. The relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein is worse than I have seen it since 2007 and Robinson’s apparent u-turn on the Maze hasn’t helped. The unionist parties are in a chaotic state, seemingly more concerned with putting the boot into each other than promoting the Union and instilling confidence in the institutions. Some elements of loyalism are now a law onto themselves.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, is upping the ante on an almost daily basis, backing celebrations like Castlederg and encouraging Gerry Kelly to do whatever he can to annoy unionists. The SDLP mimics Sinn Fein and Alliance spouts tosh. There is no chance – and I really do mean no chance – of bringing any degree of sanity to this circus.

Mr Haass is coming here in his role of conjuror. His job is to bamboozle us with smoke and mirrors and buy us a few more months until the next crisis.

But he’s a good man, wasting his time. The only people who can solve our problems are ourselves. Maybe the outside world should just shun us and stop funding us until we sort ourselves out?