The New Year has begun without the post-Haass glow. Haass, O’Sullivan and their team have returned home and publication of the proposals has provided the opportunity for blame to begin. Reading the proposals one can hear the voices of politicians, each voice disturbed by different aspects of the document. No glow, just blame.
For what it’s worth I don’t think anyone is to blame any more than anyone else. It was a joint enterprise. Everyone in the negotiations shared equal responsibility for finding agreement and when discordant notes were sounded it was the responsibility of others to understand what they meant. Each was responsible for the other and each was responsible for addressing the concerns expressed by the others. Who did that best or who continued with the old conflicts is of little consequence. The outstanding matters of the past remain outstanding and difficulties about parades and flags are built on those outstanding matters.
What if times for approaching difficulties were regularly built into the peace-building process?
What if there was regular, pre-agreed time set aside before any of the issues that would be part of the conversations were identified?
Would that assist in reaching agreement?
Would that help a post-conflict society to move to a better peace?
I suggest that pre-agreed times are essential in the processes required to make and embed peace across a society. If they are pre-agreed then discussions are not about impasses or conflicts but about the shared enterprise of making peace. I also suggest that these pre-agreed times would have a character about them different from normal party political engagement. The dynamics of those pauses for thought and discussion would be one of solving problems and not of surmounting obstacles. The commitment to the common purpose of making a better peace would be evident in the manner in which those discussions take place and the common goal would be to use the time well, for good and clear outcomes.
But we don’t have those times. We wait until we don’t know what to do any more and, when things get bad enough, we finally get to the issues.
Perhaps this isn’t all bad. It was clear that none of the parties had properly prepared their constituencies for the sacrifices needed for agreements to be reached. Nor was there enough public leadership on those compromise matters. No party leadership persuaded the public that they were reaching agreement for good reason but every party leadership has stepped onto the public stage to explain how well they have done for their own constituency. They now have an opportunity to considered public debate and give significant leadership. They will not be able to do that alone. A strong civic voice is called for, speaking into the controversy from a different place which is impacted by the lack of agreement. We also need a society willing to move towards reconciliation for the sake of a future in which the past does not recur. Peace-making is a common task with the common ambition of resisting a past in which society sunk into violence which made victims and survivors and embittered and betrayed many.
I like what the Tanaiste, Eamonn Gilmore, had to say:
This is not a step back but rather a step not yet taken. That step forward will have to be taken because it is right and necessary and because people across society are demanding it.
The problem is that nothing stands still. Stand still and you’re history. Hopefully the opportunity for making a better and more resilient peace has not been consigned to history.