It was always going to be difficult. Outstanding issues from our troubled past, together with the issues of parades, protests and flags, have been sitting in the political wings while across society people worked around them to build a stronger community. But in the sitting they have become a burden and that was why the First and Deputy First Ministers invited Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan to facilitate a process amongst the panel of parties. I, probably like most others, found myself both hoping that something would come of it and despairing if we would ever find our way through it.
At first I thought the past would be the most challenging of all three areas. Parades and flags are symptoms of a deeper problem and often treating symptoms is much easier than treating cause. As it became clear there was an impasse on the flags issue I became more hopeful that the cause would be dealt with and for a while it seemed that would be possible. All the parties have now taken a position on the paper and I find myself similarly hopeful and despairing. I don’t want to give up yet. I don’t think it would be good to give up yet.
So what would we lose if the process is stalled for a while?
The process is part of the Together Building United Community strategy which itself builds on the Shared Future and Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategies. The fact that a shared future strategy has had to morph three times already would suggest that it hasn’t sat easily into the divisions that persist. The first loss, then, is to the ambition of a more shared, united community, built on the pillars of equality, human rights, parity of esteem and normalisation. None of this is easy to navigate in the context of concrete issues and yet without a commitment to resolution we lose the momentum towards a new society that constructs new dynamics and relationships which resist the recurrence of the Troubles.
There are those who complain that the police and the army are too much in the dock these days. Inquiries run against them, there is a momentum for careful scrutiny of the past and the result is a daily reliving of the past. Those who complain want all of this to stop. Their voices are heard alongside the voices of those who believe uncovering the truth of the past is essential. Whether that be in an examination of the various narratives of the past, or in the search for justice and truth, there is a desire for the things of the past to become known. Both of these groups of people find themselves frustrated by the Haass-O’Sullivan process. Neither of them will get their desire. On the one hand, there is no alternative mechanism to deal with the leakage of scrutiny into our everyday lives. On the other hand, there is no means of examining what happened in the past so that narratives can be seen and heard and given thought. The loss, then, is across the board.
Add to that the difficulties units for dealing with outstanding cases are facing – HET & PONI. Complaints come from across the community about the lack of focus and resources, the lack of outcomes and the way in which the tasks are carried forward, together with concern about investigative powers, or lack of them. Justice is slow, if at all. Truth is hidden and there seems little willingness to reveal it. International standards relating to justice and truth demand more than this, as do those whose expressed need is to see justice being done, or to hear truth spoken, or both. Investigators and examiners of the unresolved cases can hardly feel good about themselves. Those who are seeking some reparation through truth and justice face the loss of a process which will deliver something. Inevitably no process can deliver everything to everyone but unless investigations and opportunities for truth recovery are provided then there is a loss of reparation.
The Parades Commission has probably always been contentious. From the days of the North Report it was a tip-toe exercise to craft a process that would address the competing rights and identities involved in parading and protesting. There have now been three opportunities to redesign the Parades Commission and this third attempt has not made it over the line either, at least not as yet. Three attempts is a loss in itself.
Flags, symbols of culture and identity, have proven intractable enough to require a process all of their own. The very intractability of the issue suggests that further work needs done and, in the meantime, we exist in the quagmire of competition for the acceptance of diverse identities and diverse needs to declare them. The lack of commitment to a way forward is a loss for it leaves us in the quagmire.
Above all the lack of agreement on a way forward just leaves us hanging. No resolution will be fully acceptable to anyone. But at least a planned way forward lets people know where they are. Right now no one is sure where they are and that wilderness feeling pervades our lives and the old dynamics of dissension take hold, pulling us in different directions and away from the hope of a truly shared future in which diversity can be cherished.
If the process is stalled then, in my view, there are losses for everyone.