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Column Failure of Haass talks highlights two serious problems in modern Northern Ireland

The ‘silo mentality’ of Stomont doesn’t solve controversial issues or give the public confidence in politics – and it’s the reason Haass came up against a brick wall when he tried to forge common ground, writes David McCann.

WELL, THERE YOU have it; politics in the North of this island has descended into a complete and utter farce. We bring in a diplomat who has a great deal of experience with Northern Ireland, fly him back and forth for three months from the United States, keep him working during the Christmas period and then send him packing with no agreement. Yes, this is how modern politics seems to operate in Stormont.

While not giving the general public much confidence in the political process, the failure of the Haass talks have been useful in identifying two problems that exist in Northern Ireland – namely, the unwillingness of some political parties to compromise, and also the lack of engagement from the British and Irish governments.

Unwillingness to compromise

Let’s start with the unwillingness to compromise. Dealing with issues such as flags, the past, and parades are without a doubt controversial issues that will take time to deal with, but we should be realistic enough to realise that these issues will not be dealt with any time soon as we face three sets of elections over the next several years. As voter turnout declines in Northern Ireland, we are seeing the two main parties becoming more reliant on what I call ‘governing for the base’ rather than the wider community.

Politically it is more beneficial for the DUP to say that it halted more concessions to Irish nationalism than it is to get a resolution to these controversial problems, because moderate voters have opted out of the process. That is why instead of pouring millions into our struggling health and education services, politicians this morning, effectively decided that the money would be better spent on policing parades and more flag protests.

Outside the financial absurdity of the failure to get an agreement is an even more worrying development: the lack of trust. After nearly seven years in government together these parties still do not have the confidence or the sense of trust in one another to actually agree a deal on these issues.

The paralysis within the Executive is completely derived from the fact that, in Northern Ireland, our politicians really divide power instead of share it. We have ministers running their own policies from their own departments which bare little relation to what their colleagues are doing in other departments.

This silo mentality that each of the five parties in the Executive operate under is exactly the reason why Haass came up against a brick wall when he tried to forge some common ground; there was no trust or sense of purpose amongst the participants.

Levels of engagement

But we also have to deal with another reality, and that is the lack of engagement from the British and Irish governments in the process. I realise that at a time of recession there are much bigger issues for both Enda Kenny and David Cameron than Northern Ireland, but there has been growing fear that over the last year in particular there has been tendency for both governments to simply put the peace process into a box and declare it mission accomplished.

The danger of taking this approach is that you simply allow the peace process to drift and effectively collapse. I feel that Haass’ hand in the talks could have been strengthened if the two governments had insisted on an opportunity to play a full role. We have to remember that in our history effective involvement by the two governments have actually salvaged agreements in the past as the role that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern played in 1998 helped George Mitchell get the Good Friday Agreement negotiations back on track.

In contrast, Kenny and Cameron appeared to be spectators throughout this entire process and actually had very little in terms of measures, solutions and ideas to make Richard Haass’ job any easier. If the failure of this agreement serves any purpose then it has to be as a warning to the two governments to take a much more involved role in these matters and not simply allow it to be staffed out to others. A functioning Northern Ireland Executive can only exist with strong partners in Dublin and London helping it work out complex problems.

The failure of these talks is a real missed opportunity for the people of this island.  Often we are lauded around the world for the success of our peace process yet here we had a real failure of the local parties and the two governments. As we approach 2014, there needs to be some serious thought put into how we proceed together; otherwise we are simply sleepwalking into more sectarian clashes and more violence in the future.

Dr. David McCann is a researcher at the University of Ulster.

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Read previous columns by David McCann>

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