By Tomás McGoldrick, Ireland Correspondent
Northern Irish talks – Ulster says No
The failure of Northern Irish parties to reach agreement on Richard Haass’s proposals is hardly surprising. Trying to resolve the issues of parades, flags and events of the past in six months was simply too much to ask for the US diplomat considering the roots of these disagreements go back to the Ulster Plantations of the seventeenth century.
Unionists were not willing to accept a code of conduct for parades, which would have placed legal restrictions on Orange Order, as well as republican parades. The hated Parades Commission would have been scrapped and replaced with another quango, but it seems even this incentive wasn’t enough.
Surprisingly a lot of progress was made on dealing with the past. A form of limited immunity would have been open to people willing to talk about their role in the conflict and a programme put in place for people to give their own accounts and perceptions of the conflict. The much maligned Historical Enquiries Team would have been replaced with a Historical Investigation Unit, able to conduct its own investigations.
Although Unionists were apparently unhappy with the language used in this part of the proposed agreement, feeling that the security forces would be open to the same scrutiny as the paramilitaries, this does not seem insurmountable. It’s likely, with a bit more work, that all the parties would have agreed on these mechanisms, which are essential if people in Northern Ireland are to come to terms with the past. Perhaps therefore the biggest shame with the failure of the talks was that these new processes won’t be put in place; they would have gone a long way to help victims and their families get closer to the truth.
The main area of contention was the flying of flags. It is difficult for most people outside Northern Ireland to understand why the flying of flags is such a divisive and important issue, and why there was so much violence and disorder after the Union Jack came down from Belfast City Hall. They would probably agree with John Hume’s dad who proclaimed; “You can’t eat a flag”.
As Haass points out, it is the fact that flags are representative of identity which is the problem. The failure to agree on flags is the failure to agree on the place of Britishness and Irishness in the north of Ireland.
For unionists it is simple, Northern Ireland is part of the UK so should only fly the flag of the UK. Nationalists and republicans signed up to the Good Friday Agreement so should therefore accept that they and Northern Ireland are British. Part of this is accepting the flying of the Union Jack.
For nationalists and republicans though, the Good Friday Agreement confirmed that they were Irish citizens and, while they accepted that the north would remain part of the UK until a majority decided otherwise, Northern Ireland should be regarded as Irish as it is British.
Parity of esteem means that both traditions should be given equal prominence. As Martin McGuinness put it, it’s now an orange and green state, not just an orange one. The proposal for a new flag which Haass raised was rejected for the same reasons. Although the number of people who say they are Northern Irish rather than British or Irish has increased, this does not mean that there is now a shared ‘Northern Irish’ identity to create a new flag around.
It is difficult to understand why Peter Robinson agreed with Martin McGuinness to invite Richard Haass to help resolve these issues if there was no realistic chance of agreement, perhaps the DUP leader felt he had to look like he was doing something in the aftermath of the flag protests and the Ardoyne riots.
In reality, however, he did nothing; Sinn Féin and the SDLP accepted Haass’s final draft whereas the DUP and Ulster Unionists found that they couldn’t. As long as the unionist parties are looking over their shoulders to the ultras of the Orange Order and the flag protesters it is unlikely any progress will be made.