How we approach the issues that confront us will determine the outcome. Whether it be flags, parades, dealing with the past or one of the many other contested issues if we approach these matters as sites of conflict then we are not likely to get very far. Contested matters have long been thought of as sites of the conflict telling us that the troubles of the past are not gone. The old allegiances live on in every unresolved issue and the problem confronting Drs Haass and O’Sullivan present an opportunity to reach only measured compromise.
But what if we were to change the approach?
What if, across the board, political and civic leaders, members of civil society, victims and survivors, those aligned with ‘State forces’, former paramilitaries, everyone, were to decide that we have a problem to be solved?
The trouble is that we have got stuck. If we come to our difficulties hoping to win a conflict then we are likely to remain stuck.
If we were to agree that we genuinely don’t want to return to the old conflicts and were to focus on the future, then we can begin to approach the outstanding matters from the past as a problem to be solved – a common problem. The common problem is that the outstanding matters from the past are stalling the building of a shared, equitable, more reconciled future. Common willingness to address a common problem allows us to come to the issues with the possibility of it being in everyone’s interests to resolve matters is. No one is granted a veto and everyone is granted possibility.
To approach the situation as a common problem is to address ourselves to the painstaking task of embedding a more peaceful future in which what happened in the past is less likely to happen all over again. It is also a way of lessening the feeling many have that they will not be considered. This problem belongs to everyone and when laid out in all its aspects will see what matters to everyone. But with this common problem the best that can be done will be done, for everyone will apply themselves to resolution rather than to winning or protecting themselves.
In a problem solving approach the morality of what is done is upheld. It is morally right to apply ourselves to doing what we can to provide a society in which everyone can feel they have a part and are given the respect and consideration they deserve, whether that be the opportunity for employment or the opportunity of health services and recognition of injury, to name but two. It is morally right to build a society which enables rather than traps, a society driven by care for the vulnerable and the opportunity for everyone to achieve their potential. That morality is shackled when individuals and groups are focussed only on themselves, setting up a conflict dynamic. A problem solving approach also removes the chance for each to use the other as excuse or even veto on the process of moving away from conflict. The debate becomes focussed on what serves us all best rather than on what others permit or do not permit us to do.
Will everything turn out perfectly if a problem solving approach is adopted? That is unlikely. We have lived through a depth of turmoil so dark and murky that categories of perfection are unlikely to apply for a very long time to come. It takes a while to ‘clean up our act’. In my view we have to be honest about that. What a problem solving approach offers is the opportunity for everyone to play their part in making the future that we persistently talk about – a future in which we are not dominated or threatened by the past but making a future in which our children and our children’s children will have no fear of violence, terror, domination, sectarianism and all the ensuing implications.