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Northern Ireland talks stumble over symbols of past troubles

No surrender? Niall Carson/PA Wire

It is groundhog day in Northern Ireland. We have just witnessed another extraordinary investment of time and energy in attempting to reach agreement between the opposing factions. But despite the expertise of Richard Haass, Meghan O’Sullivan, the time and engagement of local politicians and the cost to the taxpayers, no agreement has been reached.

The talks, which commenced in July, covered a range of issues from including unsolved killings during the Troubles, the route of loyalist parades and the flying of national flags. It is the last two issues, parades and flags, which have been the main sticking points. These are issues related to identity, specifically Unionist and Loyalist identity, both of which have stimulated particularly unedifying recent scenes of street violence.

The talks ended on New Year’s Eve without a substantive agreement, but a 39-page document was subsequently released which gives us some clues as to the sticking points.

Flagging future problems

There is a degree of agreement on how to manage the unresolved issues arising from a lack of prosecutions for past killings, and other outstanding justice and truth issues. The deal proposes a form of truth and reconciliation which would offer limited immunity for those coming forward with information about killings and injuries during The Troubles. Information would be gathered by a “Commission for Information Retrieval” and an(other) archive of accounts is to be created. So far so good.

There was no agreement, however, on parades and flags.

According to the Parades Commission’s latest annual report, there were 4,182 parades in Northern Ireland in the 12 months to June 2012, up from 3,962 the previous year. But only 213 of these parades were considered to be “contentious”. Of these “contentious” parades, 31% attracted some form of restriction. The majority of parades in general, and contentious parades in particular, are run by Orange or Loyalist orders.

When it comes to restricting or banning marches, the organisers claim the right to march under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to freedom of expression, Article 11, the right to assemble and Article 9 the freedom of thought and religion. Meanwhile those who do not want marches to pass through their area claim the right to prevent them under Article 8, the right to privacy and freedom of movement.

Out of every heartache a declaration: Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan, Paul Faith/PA Wire

The draft agreement proposes the devolution of powers relating to parades to an independent Authority for Public Events Adjudication which would determine any permissions or restrictions relating to marches and parades. Contentious within that body’s remit would be the banning of paramilitary uniforms and “a rejection of marks or music referring to proscribed organisations past or present”. One worries that this is a Parades Commission by another name,likely to encounter the same hurdles as that Commission.

One of the most obvious “marks” of identity in Northern Ireland are, of course, flags, another sticking point in the agreement. The question of whether or not to fly the Union Flag was the catalyst for violent protest last year after Belfast Council, with its Nationalist majority, voted to limit the days that the Union Flag should fly from Belfast City Hall.

Predictably this decision was opposed by the unionist councillors and outraged Loyalists who took to the streets. It was on the back of the continuing unrest and protests that the Haass-O’Sullivan talks were instituted.

Flag flying is symbolic of the divisions in Northern Ireland and the debacle in Belfast City Council has added fuel to the flames. For this reason, efforts to stop the flying of paramilitary flags were part of the peace-building process and a Protocol on flag flying was developed by legislation in 2000. A survey in 2010 showed concluded that efforts to reduce the number of flags flown in Unionist communities have largely failed.

It is tempting to conclude that the reason for failure to reach agreement in these latest talks is Unionist and Loyalist intransigence, since it is clear that it was not a case the parties in the talks could not agree. Rather, it was a case that the Unionist parties could not agree among themselves.

No surrender, no compromise?

For Unionists and Loyalists, the peace process has always been fraught with difficulties – accounts by George Mitchell and Alastair Campbell both highlight how Unionists required the most persuasion, how they resented that the peace process meant Tony Blair shaking the hand of Sinn Fein leader – and former IRA officer – Gerry Adams. Many Loyalists are outraged that former IRA quartermaster Martin McGuinness is now deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Prior to the agreement, police and local regiments of the army who were at the forefront of fighting the IRA, were drawn almost exclusively from the Unionist and Loyalist community, and were IRA targets. So it is hardly surprising that for some unionists, the route to peace was seen as being best achieved not by negotiation, but by defeating terrorism. Negotiation was “selling out”.

Now, as the main Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has the same problem – how to prevent an agreement from being seen as selling out. First minister, DUP leader Peter Robinson says he does not recognise the reports of “talks failure” but stresses than any agreement must consider “how the problems identified by others can be accommodated in a way that does no injury to our own deeply held positions”.

Robinson’s DUP was the party that overtook the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Trimble, following the signing of the 1998 Agreement when the Ulster Unionists lost ground after their part in the agreement was seen as a sell-out. Now, as far as Unionists and Loyalists are concerned, it is their parades and their flags that are under attack in any compromise that leads to an agreement.

Can Unionist and Loyalist leaders sell a compromise? To attempt to do so is risky, it is to take on the hardliners within Loyalism. It is to provide the enemies on your own side with sufficient ammunition to destroy you, to facilitate their branding you as a traitor. In the past, this has been to take the well-trodden route to electoral failure. Following in the footsteps of Terence O’Neill, David Trimble and other Unionist leaders who strayed towards the middle ground, it is akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.

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