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Why did Haass Fail?

The depth of crisis left behind by the failure of the Irish Haass talks can only be understood when we look at how little the informal  representatives of US imperialism set out to achieve and the extent to which the political establishment were willing to conciliate unionism in order to achieve that little.

First the overall aim. This was not to get the local administration to function as an administration. It has never done that, existing as a comic opera assembly whose only real business has been the sharing out of sectarian rights and patronage. 

The claims that local society would benefit from an increased democracy, modernisation, the withering away of sectarianism and economic growth have all proved false. Sectarianism is now built into every facet of society. Restructuring in areas such as education has been frozen for six years and the only agreement between the parties is around a pro-business austerity policy aimed at slashing workers rights.


The need for the Haass talks arose because the shaky system of  sectarian sharing had itself broken down. 

The breakdown came, not from unresolved issues within the peace process, but from issues that had been fully resolved and had now
been repudiated by the unionists.

Agreement to fly the British flag only on specific days from public buildings, in line with practice in Britain, led to widespread riots when implemented in Belfast.

Millions in bribes were paid to the Orange Order  to ensure that minor restrictions on one or two parades would lead to only formal protest. Instead there was widespread rioting.

A conflict resolution centre at the former H-blocks site, agreed as part of projects to defuse the history of the conflict, was cancelled following a DUP revolt against its own leadership. They demanded a   continued hunt for terrorists and celebration of the role of the British state and its supporters in pursuing the dirty war of assassination and massacre.

Car crash

Richard Haass and Megan O'Sullivan were brought in to seek to   resolve the unionist revolt. Originally they sought to overawe the unionists and Haass speculated about a referendum to force compliance with a new agreement. Faced with unionist intransigence they quickly backtracked to become facilitators, with the local parties in control. Then the entire process became a slow motion car-crash, with the unionists demanding re-write after re-write. Effectively, by the time of the seventh re-write, the document was essentially a unionist creation.

Yet the talks ended without agreement. Haass took the unusual step for a diplomat of giving interviews where he openly showed his exasperation with the unionists. He could not disguise his puzzlement. Why did they not sign an agreement that had been endlessly rewritten to comply with their demands?

Haass went on to list the gains of the unionists:

o Despite the continuing sectarian displays and demonstrations and the potential for violence, no attempt was being made to resolve the flags issue in the face of unionist opposition.

o Proposals on parades involved the winding up of the parades commission, a guarantee that 95% of "non-contentious” Orange parades would proceed automatically with a simple administrative process, a conflict resolution committee on which the DUP would have major representation and a code of conduct for marchers.

o Historical investigation was to be split. One section would continue to hunt for unconvicted IRA men. The other would set up a dilute form of the "truth commission" sought by Sinn Fein, but without amnesty for participants. What was largely removed from the agenda was any question of investigating the dirty war fought by the British and the collaboration    between loyalists and state forces.

Unionist revolt

So why did the unionists not sign? Basically because they do not support the peace process. The unionists favour a "democratic" solution where they form the government, where public displays of  sectarian supremacy are unrestrained and where the state forces have a free hand to deal with dissent.

Ian Paisley signed up to the current settlement, not because he  supported the settlement, but to "save Ulster" from British threats of further collabboration with Dublin. That led to him being ousted. Peter Robinson proposed a pragmatic solution - a businesslike  exchange of resources and patronage, with the DUP insisting on the lion's share. However, many in the party reject this strategy and would prefer simply to collapse the agreement and the local administration.

The Robinson strategy fell apart when, after endlessly humiliating Sinn Fein and appointing a DUP stalwart as overall organiser, he signed up to a stripped down conflict resolution center at the H-Block site. The DUP rose up and demanded a u-turn. The demands had added force following the party mobilizing a tide of bigotry around the flags issue and their central involvement in further protests in support of the Orange Order  and against any restrictions on the sectarian marches.

This does not mean a split in unionism. No-one is foolish enough to turn their back on the bigots and Robinson simply positions himself at the head of the rejectionists, turning a "no" into a "maybe" to keep up the flow of grants and patronage.

Nationalist support

If the outcome of the Haass talks is such a victory for unionism, why are Sinn Fein and the SDLP so frenzied in their endorsement of it? The post-Haass debate has divided into nationalist calls for immediate implementation and unionist demands for more talks and more concessions.

To answer that question it is necessary to remark on what did not happen in the talks. There was no intervention from the British, US or Irish governments beyond some gentle private pressure from US vice president Joe Biden and British PM Cameron. Yet it was a combination of carrot and stick by the governments that pushed through the peace process. Why not repeat the exercise to resolve the present impasse? 

Britain is the dominant imperialist power. She once ruled Ireland by direct occupation and then stymied the democratic revolution by  partition and the continued occupation of 6 north-eastern countries. The base for that occupation is unionism. The material foundation of unionist support is sectarian privilege, enforced by the public demonstrations of the Orange Order  and loyalist paramilitaries.

Having defeated the IRA, the British imposed their own solution of co-opting the Catholic middle class into participation in the local administration, later adding the Dublin government when they understood their fear of the instability posed by revolt in the North.  The British overcame  unionist opposition with the phrase "Ulster must say Yes to something."  However they also had the duty of stabilising the unionist base and the threat to sectarian supremacy, which they did in a series of modifications that increased Unionist power and reduced concessions to nationalism.

However this process proved very costly to a movement as unstable and irrational as unionism. It cost the British the unionist leader   Trimble, led to the collapse of the UUP as the majority unionist party and led to the ousting of Paisley.

The British are at an endstop with Peter Robinson. If they press him to strike a deal with the nationalists he also will be ousted. Any replacement will be far to the right and the agreement will become even more unstable.

That explains the Sinn Fein policy. Essentially the strategy of the nationalists is to demonstrate to Britain and the US that they can be counted on to support a new settlement, no matter how onerous the conditions and that therefore the imperialists should put pressure on the unionists and bring them to heel. 

Their strategy also reflects the difference in the power relationship between nationalism and unionism. A collapse of the agreement would see many unionists politicians treated as heroes while retaining patronage through many of the structures of civil society. The same process would see a sharp fall in Sinn Fein's support and influence.

The outworking of that process was completed when Alliance MP Naomi Long called on the British prime minister to support a policy of implementation. He supported the Robinson policy of further   discussion and negotiation.

In the squabbling following the Haass debacle it is easy to miss the main political outcome of the negotiations. That is that the ideological and political justification of the peace process, summed up as "equality of the two traditions," no longer operates.

Inequality of the “two traditions”

Sinn Fein have avoided presenting a political opposition to the loyalist mobilization by saying that the loyalists are attached to their Britishness and Sinn Fein's task is to seek equal representation for Irishness.

In that vein Sinn Fein proposed a strange sectarian patchwork, with each area assigned a single official Irish or British flag. The proposal did not survive the opening of negotiations. Apparently proposals that the Irish tricolour have set days for flying from public buildings, or that it fly from Stormont when the Irish president visited, were ruled out, as were proposals for a licensing system for flags flying from street furniture.

The talks were collapsed by the unionists. Any further discussion will have to make further concessions to them. In these circumstances nationalists cannot expect any settlement that gives a place to the tricolour or seriously restrains the use of the British flag as a   sectarian cudgel. That means that the ideological underpinnings of the peace process have been removed and the system is much less stable.

A stronger reason for instability was evident from the start of the process. The negotiations were supposed to be between the political parties but the DUP, without the slightest protest from Sinn Fein, bolted Mervyn Gibson, leader of the Orange Order , unto their delegation. It later emerged that copies of the final proposals were shown by unionist delegates to Willie Frazier and Jamie Bryson, leaders of the most extreme elements in the flag demonstrations and riots.

Unstable future

The suggestion has been made that unionists will not concede anything this side of forthcoming elections. The presence of the most extreme elements and of elements linked to the far-right paramilitary groups suggests that they will never concede. Protests by Martin McGuinness calling attention to this tripartite alliance of political parties, Orange bigots and paramilitaries were met with a savage personal attack by Peter Robinson, further destabilising the situation.

Stability now rests on the frantic desire of Irish nationalism, led by the Dublin government, to preserve the agreement at all costs. We are far from collapse. The unionists want to drag out the talks and, if the worst comes to the worst, the British government can step out from behind the scenes.

One thing is certain. A new fix in the Irish peace process will, like all the earlier fixes, involve another sharp shift to the right, one that will cut away much of the ideology of equality used by Sinn Fein.

Also certain is the reality that the political oppression of nationalist workers will be increased as loyalist sectarian supremacy is confirmed, while unionist workers will see their areas more openly handed over to paramilitary groups.  Class divisions will express themselves more openly as this peace process, like others across the globe, continue to slide to the right.


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