Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Haass Talks in Northern Ireland Begin

This week former George W. Bush administration special envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass began what is slated to be twelve weeks of intermittent consultations with the five parties in Northern Ireland's Executive. The talks will be conducted in rounds with Haass flying in to Belfast from New York several times a month to conduct them. The talks will focus on three key stumbling blocks to progress in the peace process: parades, flags and emblems, and dealing with the past. 

As part of the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s a quango (quasi non-governmental organization--a body financed by the government but with independence like an NGO) known as the Parades Commission was created to deal with the problem of parades regulation during the marching season. Every year it receives requests for parade permits stating the date, time, route, and details of a proposed parade. Local residents along the parade route are free to submit objections and the Parades Commission then makes a ruling. Only a few parades in Northern Ireland--those involving Protestants marching through Catholic areas--are controversial. At present these are mainly in North Belfast, which is an area of alternating nationalist and unionist neighborhoods criss-crossed with peace walls in order to protect the residents from missiles from the other side. The Orange Order has refused to hold dialogues with residents' groups contending that its members have an absolute right to march on the "Queen's highway." Since the mid-1990s when the controversies were at their height over the Drumcree Church march outside of Portadown in north Co. Armagh, in the Lower Ormeau area of South Belfast, and in Derry in Co. Londonderry, the number of controversial parades has been gradually reduced.

Sinn Fein's focus seems to have shifted from parades to flags and the past. Both nationalist parties, the dominant Sinn Fein and the smaller, more moderate SDLP, want to eliminate the flying of Union flags over the city hall in Belfast and over councils with nationalist majorities. They contend that under the parity-of-esteem principle of the Belfast agreement the Union flag should have no more right to fly than the Irish tricolor. Alliance, a non-sectarian party made up of both Catholics and Protestants and dedicated to effective government rather than identity politics, negotiated a compromise in Belfast last fall that left the flag flying over Belfast City Hall on between 15 and 20 designated days, the same as is the custom on the British mainland. But this did not satisfy the unionist parties who needed an issue to demonstrate their fervor in protecting a union that is not in danger. Loyalist protesters spent the holiday shopping season demonstrating in downtown Belfast. This ruined the season for local merchants and helped to destroy the message that the provincial government was eager to deliver that conflict was a thing of the past.

The DUP and Sinn Fein, who jointly dominate the Assembly and the Executive, agreed last year to demolish the Maze/Long Kesh prison outside of Belfast and turn one set of the H-block cells into a museum on The Troubles in order to promote tourism and foster research on conflict resolution. Unionists fear that any museum will be turned into a shrine commemorating republican hunger strikers, ten of whom starved themselves to death in 1981-82 in a bid to win special category status. It was also the site of a spectacular escape by IRA prisoners in 1983. Republicans and even many constitutional nationalists regard the ten as martyrs and patriots whereas unionists just see them as terrorists who committed suicide. Last month DUP leader Peter Robinson announced in a letter from Florida, where he was on vacation, that he was withdrawing his party's support for a museum in the former Maze.  He was under pressure from many of his supporters and a few party rivals who fear that any museum will become a republican shrine. 

Haass may in twelve weeks be able to fashion compromise solutions to the parades issue by creating a new body that does essentially the same thing as the Parades Commission. He may also find a compromise to the flag issue. And possibly even to the Maze controversy. But he is unlikely to find any agreement that will put an end to the squabbling between the main parties. Sinn Fein, the DUP, and even the UUP all have focused their politics on identity issues rather than bread-and-butter economic issues. It is like Germany under Bismarck or the United States trying to deal with such issues as gun control, abortion, and school prayer. Many members in both the DUP and Sinn Fein were uneasy about the "chuckle brothers" bonhomie between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in 2007-08. The UUP is collapsing with voters defecting to both Alliance and NI21 on the left and the DUP on the right. So it is attempting to outflank the DUP from the right. The Progressive Unionist Party has no representatives in the Assembly but survives because of its links to the Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitary organization, which was probably behind the violence of both the flag protests and loyalists riots. And the Traditional Unionist Voice, a splinter from the DUP, is always looking for signs of weakness and compromise from the DUP's leadership as Ian Paisley once looked for those signs from the UUP.

Haass will probably be on the next Republican presidential nominee's short list for secretary of state. Alongside him on that list will be the name of his successor, Mitchell Reiss. Reiss has expertise on North Korea and nuclear proliferation that Haass lacks. A favorable outcome will help distinguish and separate Haass from Reiss. But then who knows what the next Republican presidential nominee will be looking for in a secretary of state. 

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