When things get too hot and heavy for us here in Ireland, we call for outside help, usually from the United States. Douglas Hyde looked to it, de Valera did the same. Nothing wrong with that. In making major decisions, it’s important that there’s a degree of detachment, people who aren’t caught up in the heat of battle, and that’s what the Americans bring. In our time we had Bill Clinton, George Mitchell - without them, most people agree, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement. So in calling on the services of Richard Haas to help move us out of deadlock, we’re following a tradition of enlisting help from the United States and adding to the mix the one quality we all lack: detachment. (Although the repeated claim that Richard Haas is so keen to be the Detached One, he’s happy to work for nothing, stretches credulity - ach sin sceile eile.)
Mind you, it would be better and more dignified if we didn’t have to call on Haas. It’s hard to rid one’s thoughts of playground children who need to call in the teacher so we stop from punching each other’s heads. If we were politically mature we’d be able to sit down as Irish people and thrash matters towards a satisfactory conclusion, without the need for outside advice or control. For a long time unionists and Westminister tried to block outside interference - other than their own, of course. This was an internal UK matter,and they took umbrage at attempts to internationalise the problem. The Americans and everyone else could just butt out and stay out. Even the appearance of Americans on a fact-finding tour- remember Joseph Kennedy? - caused unionist hackles to rise. While nationalists and republicans had a big soft spot for the Kennedy dynasty, unionism bristled at their very name. So although Clinton on one occasion famously compared the opposing sides here with a pair of drunks who keep falling off the wagon, and although some would say Americans might be better employed finding a negotiator to help them solve some of their own self-created problems around the globe, we must be grateful for Richard Haas.
Will his inclusion do the trick? Will the presence of a cool, experienced American head result in the cracking of that unholy trinity, flags, parades and the past? Haas is said to have that George Mitchell quality of likeability - people warm to him. But as he says himself ““The personal relationships can be useful at the margins, but at the end of the day people are not going to make difficult decisions because they like you or they feel comfortable with you”.
Too true. In the end, unionists and republicans are going to have to look at those three areas which divide us and move onto the common ground which, we can only hope, Haas will have helped map out.
Flags in one sense is the easiest of the three divisive issues, because flags are symbolic. Like peace walls, they tell us where we are and how we regard ourselves and others. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect would agree that the flying of flags from lamp-posts is as primitive as a dog cocking his leg to mark out territory. Yet the flag matter which has created so much disorder - the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days rather than every single day of the year - almost answers itself if we think about it. The decision sprang from a democratic vote by the City Council and emulates exactly the practice of flag-flying at Stormont. The present furore came about because the DUP thought it had found an issue that would pull the seat out from under Naomi Long in East Belfast. Haas’s detachment should be capable of seeing limited flag-flying as classic compromise ground, not the ripping-down disaster of Peter Robinson’s overheated imagination.
Parades? Parades certainly are a time-honoured practice on both sides but particularly the unionist. But ‘time-honoured’ is the wrong term. Because you’ve done something for a long time doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. There’s a simple if maybe temporary solution: ban all parades for five years, so we all can taste the happiness of not having to be confined to our home or sit in our car as yet another strutting set of marchers thuds past. At the end of the five years we could judge if the effect had been beneficial or otherwise. My money’s on beneficial.
The third nut - the past - will be the hardest to crack. The gulf between those who see the decades of conflict as the product of blood-crazed psychopaths and those who see it as part of a centuries-old independence struggle seems unbridgeable. But cast your mind back to the early hours of Good Friday 1998. At the time it seemed as if agreement was impossible. But it happened, with thanks in no small measure to George Mitchell. If Ian Paisley was able to sit down in government with Martin McGuinness, anything is possible.
Haas as I say places limited value on personality. Speaking of the local parties here, he says: “They're going to make the decisions because, on fairly cold calculations, they are either better off if they do it, or worse off if they don't do it.”
That’s it exactly, Richard. That better off/worse off equation is what brought the Good Friday Agreement into existence and Ian Paisley into halter alongside Martin McGuinness. It can also be used to lever people into acknowledging the past and moving on, even if it means abandoning the republicans-mass-criminality view that some unionists cling to.