Thursday, 29 August 2013

In God We Trust

Oh dear. It appears we’ve been sold a pup. The DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, let the cat out of the bag – to mix both metaphors and species – when he conceded, on Tuesday’s UTV Live Tonight, that the US diplomat Richard Haass was “not a miracle-worker”.

Why then was such an under-qualified person head-hunted for the position of chairman of the all-party talks which start in mid-September? I would have thought that the minimum criteria for the role would have included demonstrable expertise in the performance of extraordinary deeds which could be explained only by divine intervention. If we don’t have God on our side, next month, the initiative is in trouble.

It gets worse. 

Previous political breakthroughs owed little to American intermediaries, Jeffrey informed us: “It was the local political parties who came up with the solutions at the end of the day.”

No they didn’t. If they had found solutions, the problems would have been solved (the clue is in the noun) and they wouldn’t have needed to invite Mr Haass to mediate. The fact that the First and Deputy First Ministers have had to resort yet again to trans-Atlantic brokerage suggests that problems remain and that local representatives are unable – or unwilling – to solve them.

It wouldn’t be so bad or so embarrassing if they were new problems, or even major ones, which had emerged during the evolution of the political process. Sadly, the problems in Haass’s in-tray concern flags, parades, protests, symbols and emblems – the unclaimed baggage circling round on the carousel of our past.

Whatever their age or provenance, and however intractable they might seem, these problems do need to be solved. But where should Richard Haass begin? How do you discuss ‘cohesion and sharing’ with a group of people who don’t want to be in the same room?

I imagine you begin by agreeing the objectives of the process and establishing the parameters for the talks. Once again, there was a contribution from Mr Donaldson which might prove instructive. The Lagan Valley MLA told UTV: “What my community wants to know is that there’s not going to be a cultural whitewashing in Northern Ireland; yes we want shared space, but not at the expense of removing the culture and identity of one section of the community.”  

The irony will not be lost on nationalists of a man with Ulster Unionist roots counselling against cultural whitewashing in Northern Ireland. That was precisely the experience of nationalists here during decades of Unionist rule following the establishment of the northern state: their culture and identity received scant recognition and no respect from the Stormont government.

Their mistreatment conflicted with the advice of no less a person than Lord Carson who, in 1921, urged the Ulster Unionist Council to “ tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us.”

That appeal amounted to a call for equality. It would be interesting to contemplate the implications, for example, for the flying of flags on public buildings, the use of emblems and symbols, or the commemoration of republican dead. “Similar rights...for those who differ from us”. 

For the spirit of Carson to influence the Haass talks, and encourage unionists to maintain nationalists’ traditions and citizenship, would require divine intervention. Now and again, miracles do happen. 

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