A spirited discussion about the issues on the Haass agenda

One of the recurring themes of tonight’s Haass/O’Sullivan panel discussion is that we often ask the wrong questions.

Ask not if there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but why there’s no tunnel!

P4C panel againIt was the third panel event that Platform for Change have hosted this year. Trevor Ringland chaired (opening with a quote from Blackadder and A Long Peace by Messrs Fealty, Ringland and Steven) and the up-front contributions came from:

  • Lesley Carroll (Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church; member of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past);
  • Dominic Bryan (Institute of Irish Studies, QUB);
  • Peter Osborne (Parades Commission);
  • Brandon Hamber (INCORE, University of Ulster);
  • Maureen Hetherington (Towards Understanding and Healing);
  • Orna Young (independent researcher) lost her voice and wasn’t on the panel.

(Given that the masculine manner in which NI conducts politics as well as the gender imbalance in both political institutions and civic society was a talking point, it’s worth pointing out that the panel would have been gender balanced except for illness.)

The five panellists made their opening remarks before the audience (numbering 50 to 60) joined in with their questions and observations.

Several Slugger regulars were in the audience and will hopefully add their thoughts in the comments below. My notes aren’t verbatim quotes, and at times may reflect what I thought I heard (or wanted to hear) rather than exactly what the contributors said. Happy to be corrected!

  • Significant parts of civic society ignored the Eames/Bradley panel – specifically the business community and the wider education sector – but are engaging much more wholeheartedly with the Haass process this year.
  • Northern Ireland certainly out-parades Scotland with far more parades and a much smaller population. Parading has rocketed over the last 10-20 years. Talk of cultural suppression was questioned, and not just by outgoing Parades Commission chair Peter Osborne. Interesting to hear that the Scottish police are talking to loyal orders about not having return parades to cur the drain on police resources.
  • There was agreement that a centralised mechanism to deal with the past would have to be part of the solution.
  • Derry’s year as City of Culture on top of existing relationships has created a very different atmosphere for parading in the north west.
  • “Why are people buying a lie?” in relation to the flag protests being in an excuse or a smoke screen for other issues – examples given of drugs, money lending, money laundering and paramilitary feuding and membership swapping as issues in North Belfast.
  • P4C Haass audienceThe Parades Commission spent £100k on mediators in North Belfast over many years, then replaced mediation with negotiations chaired by Lord Alderdice which fell apart (though not before various proposals were brought to the table). Peter Osborne describes the failure to find a solution in North Belfast as a regret he’ll carry with him when he steps down from the Parades Commission.
  • There’s a lack of political leadership, particularly to cover those involved in talks and doing local deals over parading.
  • Dominic Bryan noted how parties had voted in Belfast City Council over flags and asked whether those parties would vote in exactly the same way in other councils like Derry or Newry?
  • Later he also suggested that there are existing models that could help fix the issue of flags on public buildings. By focussing on council offices we’re missing the bigger problem of flags on lampposts. He got very animated over police failure to police flags and suggested that a small measure like mandating names and addresses on flags together with a small fine would be a start.
  • Peter Osborne commented that it was ridiculous that traders can’t put posters up on lampposts but intimidatory flags are erected in areas and not taken down.
  • Brandon Hamber and Maureen Hetherington agreed that that many (party) responses to Attorney General John Larkin’s comments were dishonest. Parties say victims need to be at the centre yet want to privatise victims’ support.
  • Haass and O’Sullivan are running a negotiation and not a consultation.
  • Maureen Hetherington observed that patriarchy in Northern Ireland society needs to be challenged before we can ever hope to build a shared future. A member of the audience commented that there are only three women regularly at the Haass talks: Meghan O’Sullivan, Jennifer McCann and Naomi Long. Lesley Carroll remembered Father Alec Reid telling her that “women make a difference” and said that not having women in talks process meant we were continuing to have an excluding society. The Welsh Assembly is gender balanced.
  • There was a debate whether we needed less history, more history, better history.
  • Labour Party NI’s Boyd Black put the blame at the door of the UK Labour Party for suppressing socialist politics in Northern Ireland for so long.

If Richard Haass comes up with a miraculous solution I’ll eat my hat, because it’s a process. (Brandon Hamber)

After a gentile beginning the evening warmed up to some animated discussions and contributions. Dominic Bryan’s rant about flags is well worth a listen. [When I’ve time I’ll try to pick it out of the audio and upload it separately!]

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