By Frances Davis
The current failure to move forward on proposals which emerged from the ‘Haass’ talks in relation to the north of Ireland, as Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy recently pointed out, `go to the heart of the issues and difficulties involved in making political change and progress’.
The proposals which emerged from all-party talks chaired by US diplomats Richard Haass and Megan O’Sullivan, put forward reasonable and modest ways of dealing with the problematic issues of the past, contentious parades, the flying of flags and use of emblems. Resolving these issues is crucial to maintaining and progressing the Good Friday Agreement’s core principle of equality.
However, despite compromise on the part of republicans who assented to the proposals, and the fact that both the SDLP and Alliance (after some prevarication) also backed the plans, the unionist DUP and UUP parties both continue to reject and block them.
The proposals advanced at the end of 2013 by Haass, having returned to Ireland on the assumption that agreement could be made, were the seventh draft, arrived at over weeks of discussion, consultation and taking to account some 600 submissions.
What the substance of political unionist objection is has yet to be convincingly argued. What is clear is that the most rejectionist, right-wing (and minority) unionism is dictating the terms. Both the UUP and DUP have been conceding to (and in some cases collaborating with) this reactionary element for some considerable time now. Fearful of losing support to their right, or being outflanked, these actions have merely served to embolden this element, as seen during the last year with the so-called flags and other violent protests, sectarian marches, attacks on Catholic churches and areas and now the failure to move forward over Haass.
With elections approaching in May, closely followed by the `marching season’, there are fears that stalling and failure to get on with Haass’ proposals will not simply be paralysis, but could allow a further vacuum where an increase in sectarian unionist violence against Catholics and a repeat of last years’ events could occur.
The failure of leadership from unionism has been strongly criticised by Sinn Fein, and sections of civic society such as the churches, trade unions and business leaders have urged progress, including at a demonstration last week in Belfast. Despite this, and some meetings of the party leaders since December, the unionist leaderships continue their intransigent stance.
There have been some attempts by unionism to change the equality principles by asserting the definition of victims, when dealing with the past, should deem some victims worth more than others. This is clearly not possible in taking forward society in a post-conflict situation and the need to address truth and justice issues for those on all sides.
Also, on the issue of parades, unionists have objected to having a `code of conduct’ as part of the proposals – eminently reasonable, but unionist leaders have yet to spell out why this is. But the real objective of unionism is to stall the whole process and create some illusion that activity is taking place under the guise of open ended talks. As Sinn Fein have pointed out, there were inclusive talks, and Haass presented his considered proposals. These should now be implemented.
Of course, at the root of the ability of unionists to block the process is the fact that the British government allow them to do so. The approach of the government has been to essentially throw up its hands and say `its up to the parties to resolve’. They have yet to give their own verdict on Haass’ proposals, other than to say they have `merit’ and disagreed with the Irish government’s proposal that the two governments should act together to get movement on Haass.
British governments do of course have a record of propping up and allowing unionism to stall the political process. And, against a backdrop of growing revelations this year around British security services’ role in collusion with Loyalist murders of nationalists, moves on dealing the past could have profound implications for the British state.
The government has vigorously resisted having any proper inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane, for example. They continue to present the current difficulties as `one for the parties to resolve’, without saying clearly who is blocking the process and what should actually be done to move it forward.
Unfortunately Labour have also failed to come solidly behind the Haass plans, whilst making positive noises about them. It also urges the parties not to lose momentum, whilst agreeing with the government that there can be no question of imposing a solution. It has attacked the British government for being `disengaged’, but has yet to say what the substance of any engagement should be.
Meanwhile, the majority of people in the north clearly want progress on this current logjam. They want to see something concrete coming out of Haass and there is frustration, as hopes appear to fade. The outcome of the May elections will reveal if the DUP’s and UUP’s tactics of looking over their shoulder to their rejectionist right help them win votes, or if more `moderate’ unionists such as the Alliance, hold onto their votes or increase them.
Sinn Fein’s clear line in showing leadership, and the ability to compromise in order to move politics forward, means that their support continues to grow and be consolidated – in the south as well as the north. Leading on the economic issues, in being the main party opposing austerity and cuts, alongside driving forward the peace process, puts Sinn Fein in a strong position as their annual Ard Fheis (Conference) approaches in Wexford at the weekend.
In Britain it is important to support Sinn Fein’s approach, to understand that it is unionist attempts to block equality and progress which are causing the current problems and to insist the British government – which is not a neutral bystander, but a participant – stops allowing a unionist veto, and ensures the Haass proposals are implemented.
Labour MP John McDonnell has been among those putting pressure on the government – and de facto on the Labour leadership – to stand up to unionist intransigence. His Early Day Motion (EDM) on the issue (number 1029) `calls on the Government to publicly and jointly with the Irish government, encourage all parties to move speedily towards implementation of the proposals’. Also signed by the SDLP and Alliance party, as well as Labour MPs Mike Wood, Jim Sheridan and Chris Ruane, chair of the All-Party Irish in Britain Group, this can help add to the voices in Britain expressing a clear line on what in necessary.
The Labour leadership should similarly be playing a much stronger role on this, holding the government to account and spelling out what a future Labour government would do.