Richard Haass talks: Back at a crossroads

O'Sullivan and Haass Professor Meghan O'Sullivan and Dr Richard Hass were unable to reach an agreement with the Northern Ireland parties.

It is 45 years since the former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill made his famous televised pitch to moderate opinion in the "Ulster Stands At the Crossroads" speech.

Intentionally or not, Richard Haass echoes Captain O'Neill's phrase in his draft document on flags, parades and the past.

"We are standing at a crossroads in Northern Ireland" the Haass blueprint argues. "This is a remarkable opportunity to make bold choices to address the issues that hold us back from meeting our society's full potential.

"Further delay will risk an increase in levels of public disengagement. The passage of time - and the passing of those with information to share and wounds to salve - will also deprive Northern Ireland of the chance to learn as much as possible about its history while there is still time to do so.

"This loss would compound the social and emotional costs of our prolonged conflict".

The language was designed to be a solemn declaration by the five main Stormont parties. However, as we now know, the consensus required for them all to subscribe to the document was lacking.

Outside help

Whatever you think of the Richard Haas blueprint on flags, parades and the past and its confusing string of new and sometimes clumsily named quangoes you have to admire Dr Haass's consummate diplomatic skills.

Most of us, if we had been deprived of that much sleep and flown back and forth across the Atlantic only to return home empty handed, would have been forgiven the temptation to treat our hosts to a few pointed home truths.

Instead the former US envoy thanked all sides for their efforts and insisted the lack of agreement should not be characterised as a failure.

Dr Haass and his co-chair Prof Meghan O'Sullivan hope the new structures they suggested for managing parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles will one day become a reality.

But Stormont politicians don't have a great track record for resolving their differences without outside help - witness the many months of meetings held by the community relations Cohesion Sharing and Integration group.

Of course, there are no guarantees that if the Haass report had been fully agreed and implemented the tensions of 2013 would not be repeated in 2014.

The planned new Office for Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests together with its companion Authority for Public Events Adjudication might have enjoyed a honeymoon period, particularly if the Grand Orange Lodge had been convinced of their merits.

But that period could have proved very brief - ending the first time the Adjudication Authority had to wield its power to rule on a contentious parade or protest.


Equally, the proposed single Historical Investigations Unit and Independent Commission for Information Retrieval may have replaced the current disjointed approach to the past. Yet the HIU's planned use of full police investigative powers and the ICIR's ability to grant limited immunity would have had the potential to stir controversy as well as, potentially, to shine light on the hidden corners of the past.

Moreover the prospect of the Information Retrieval Commission's thematic unit examining broad patterns in the Troubles had the potential to spark new battles over "rewriting history".

So change would have carried risks, but then so does the status quo. For now, the Parades Commission - much vilified by the Orange Order - will continue to play a pivotal role during the inevitable tensions of the summer marching season, while the troubled past will still be dealt with in a piecemeal manner.

London and Dublin will face calls to play a more active role, while the Stormont parties consider how to resurrect something positive from the anti-climactic conclusion to Dr Haass and Prof O'Sullivan's attempts to act as honest New Year's Eve peace brokers.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I have just looked through Terence O'Neill's 1968 speech and it's remarkable how much of what he said has come to pass.
    I remember writing to Ian Paisley in about 1980, pointing out to him that every time he said no to a British government proposal they came back with another one even less palatable and that if he didn't compromise he would lose everything he was trying to protect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The one unchanging thread throughout the past 45 years has been hard-line unionist intransigence, typically spearheaded by the Orange Order, which has brought down any unionists who dared even contemplate any form of compromise from the watery reforms of O'Neill to Faulkner's power sharing to Trimble,etc. Marches and flags are as crucial to this racism as they were to the Klu Klux Klan in the USA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Tolerance of the 'other' side is seen here in NI as the betrayal of your own 'side'. As long as this persists there will never be a concensus over flags and parades. We are experts at taking offence in NI. Personally, I would let people fly whatever flags they like. We could have the Union flag plus: Irish on Easter Monday, Stars and Stripes on Thanksgiving, others on their national days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    it was interesting that some thought was given to why it all happened , the troubles/war . Why did the IRA do what they do, was there any responsibility taken by the government, did the unionists/orange order not stand idle as Catholics were denied rights?. This is a key question why? why did Mandela fight or king organise demonstrations. In the usa and SA at least they believe they were wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Only a blinkered optimist would have expected resolution. The DUP vote depends on an Orange mandate. At what point were they going to declare that Orangeism and flegs are minority pursuits and many pro-union voters would not go to the back door to watch an Orange parade. Apply the North Belfast parading scenario to the Haass document and you will see in the detail what a crock this really is.


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