Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Poetic Justice

I hope Dr Richard Haass was listening to the Nolan Show yesterday morning. It would have given him an idea of the scale of the task facing him as he presides over the multi-party talks on parades and protests; flags, symbols and emblems, and related matters; and the past.

The programme – which is probably responsible for more ‘water cooler moments’ than any other here – led with a disturbing interview about the PSNI investigation into the suspected sexual abuse of more than 20 children and young people in Northern Ireland.

But, despite the gravity of the lead story, the issue which really got radio listeners talking was the second item – a proposal from the Northern Ireland Conservative, Trevor Ringland, for an additional anthem for the Northern Ireland soccer team. Mr Ringland, a former Irish rugby international, debated the idea with the Ulster Unionist Councillor Jim Rodgers and – even though their discussion generated more heat than light – it was still revealing.

It showed Councillor Rodgers’ total opposition to the suggestion of an additional, ‘inclusive’ anthem which, in Mr Ringland’s words, would show that Northern Ireland was “a football team for everyone”. Councillor Rodgers saw no need for a gesture, similar to that already made by the Irish Rugby Football Union, on the part of the Northern Irish football authorities.

He was supported by a telephone-caller named Billy, who lamented the disbandment of the B Specials 40 years ago and complained that “in the interests of peace we have forfeited everything”. That was a remarkable statement.

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is guaranteed – so long as a majority here want the status quo; there is a unionist in the top ministerial position at Stormont; there are around 3,000 loyal order marches every year; Republicans for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history are supporting its police service; the Republic has abandoned its territorial claim to the North; and the union flag still flies over Belfast City Hall and Parliament Buildings – albeit on a limited number of days. But, as far as Billy is concerned, “everything” has been “forfeited”.

Billy, and many like him, can’t see the wood for the trees, or can’t see the lamp posts for the flags.

Everything forfeited? Surely a just and equitable peace is worth going the extra mile for? Or is “Not an inch” still to be the mantra? Dr Haass will have the measure of us soon enough.    

The talks chairman, whose head must be dizzy with talk of ‘red lines’, will find out how willing – or unwilling – our parties are to draw a line under the past. He wants all sides to compromise – a reasonable expectation. For too many people though, the ‘c’ word is still a profanity.

I expect Dr Haass will get a quick sense of his chances of success. In an interview last week, he revealed that many of his colleagues were surprised that he had been invited to intervene here: they thought our problem was done and dusted long ago. I can’t imagine that he’d want to waste valuable time in Belfast, if his mission looked doomed. But flexibility, generosity and courage – qualities not normally in evidence here – will all be required if these talks are to succeed.

Even when deals are done, here, history shows that they have a worrying tendency to unravel. If these talks fail, it’s difficult to imagine US high-flyers committing themselves to future initiatives. It’s not so difficult to envisage the cold shoulder from the White House and Wall Street.

In the past (that word again) we’ve had “the only show in town”. Now, I suspect, we’re in the last chance saloon. Will we see Heaney’s dream being realised – the day when hope and history finally rhyme? Or should we begin penning our own Anthem for Doomed Youth?

It's over to you, Dr Haass. 

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