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19 December 2014

Northern Ireland Christmas talks

Northern Ireland Christmas talks

It is fast becoming a Northern Irish Christmas tradition – interparty talks with a looming Christmas deadline. Last year the 'Haass' talks ended on New Year's Eve without agreement despite a huge amount of direct input from civil society.

Regular readers of PQ will know that Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland submitted a substantial response to the Haass Talks which centred around parades, flags and the past. We were also the co-creators of an event called #haasshope which brought together around 150 young people of Christian faith to discuss these issues. We invited political and Church leaders, those who usually speak for a living, to listen to the dreams of young people.

This year the general sense is that there has been much less public attention and expectation on the current talks. However there has been one clear voice raised from civic society – the Make it Work campaign. This is a collective of representatives from across the community including business, charity, faith, sport and others. The whole aim of the campaign, which we are a part of, is to "offer our support and encouragement to all of those involved in the process". It is in this ethos that the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland makes the following comments:

Money

The current talks lack the punchy title of the 'Haass Talks' and the closest they have come to being 'branded' is perhaps the wry comments from Jim Allister who called these talks the 'Chequebook Summit'. There appears to be some truth to this comment in that money and budget appear to be the central issue every time politicians are being interviewed. The truth is that money is important and proposals need to be realistic. Our politicians have financial responsibilities and budgetary frameworks within which to operate. However the troubles and its legacy and issues of identity like flags and parades have weathered cycles of boom and bust for decades if not hundreds of years.

The truth is that all the money in the world will not solve these issues. Money and political agreements by themselves cannot achieve cultural change. Peace cannot be bought at any price. The irony though is that it is freely available to those who are willing to take the risk of new relationship. While recognising the budgetary constraints we refuse to accept that money is the reason progress cannot be made on issues like parades, flags and the past. Even if money is scarce, leadership and good political relationships can create social capital.

Complexity

The Haass talks focused on parades, flags and the past. These current talks add the additional items of corporation tax, welfare reform, structural reform of the Northern Ireland assembly to name a few. Some commentators list almost thirty separate issues for discussion. Bundling all these diverse subjects together, while ambitious, may prevent reasoned mature progress to be made on the fewer highly contentious issues. Mature political process has value even if the final outcomes are not agreed at this stage. If an agreement is not reached it would be helpful for the public to at least see a list of future priorities and progress made following these talks. Finally, even if these talks 'fail' we commend ambition and optimism, we'd like to see more of it.

Timing

The deadline for the talks is reportedly today (Friday 19 December) with everyone agreed that if no agreement is reached this side of the new year it is very unlikely one will be reached this side of the Westminster elections. In recent weeks we have already seen electioneering creeping into public comments and positions. The reality is that major compromises on contentious issues like flags and parades are unlikely at this stage as the focus shifts to winning marginal seats and shoring up support from those most likely to turn out to vote. Concern is growing that some political representatives on all sides are more concerned at this stage with spinning the blame rather than stewarding the opportunity. While money and deadlines can provide helpful pressure towards agreement we propose a long term commitment to these issues in an interparty format. Practically this would look like a commitment to spend allotted time together every week, for the long term, in interparty discussion until a framework is agreed at least on the issues of parades, the past and flags.

Whatever the outcome of these talks in the days ahead we encourage and support our representatives. We pray for wisdom as they steward our resources and the tone of public debate. We pray for the peace and prosperity of this place and its people in the year ahead, for relationship, ambition and commitment.