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10 January 2014

A response to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks

A response to the Haass/O’Sullivan talks

31 December 2013 came and went, and with it the deadline for an agreement of the five Northern Ireland Executive parties under the Haass talks. We have written at length about these talks in the last six months and encouraged our members to make representations to their MLAs and to make submissions to the panel of parties. We have also made our own submission and have followed the talks closely.

In short, we like many others here, have invested something of ourselves and our hopes in these talks. Here are a few points in response to the proposals and the fact that no agreement has been reached to date:

First, thanks

- Thanks to all those involved for the huge amount of time and energy they gave to these talks over the Christmas period. For many this meant little or no real rest or time with family or friends. Thank you for your personal sacrifice on our behalf.

- Thanks to Dr Haass, Dr O'Sullivan and the panel who over six months held 33 days of meetings and negotiations with more than 500 people and received 600 responses to their call for submissions.

- Thanks to those of you who took the time to make a submission, or to make your views known to political representatives. There is a grassroots groundswell for change and you are a part of it.


- There is certainly a sense of disappointment and frustration that no agreement was reached. However we also sense hope in that some progress has been made. Parties are talking about issues that were not being talked about a year ago. We celebrate this and are hopeful and prayerful about 2014.

- We call for the Executive parties to commit to regular meetings until agreement is reached.

- The draft agreement proposes up to eight new bodies. We are reminded that while new processes and institutions are important, peace is only made by changed hearts and minds. There is a vital role for the local Church in this space.

- There are opposing but equally legitimate political viewpoints in Northern Ireland. Basic playground rules are that an agreement between different sides will involve compromise. Our politicians must clearly differentiate between political compromises and moral compromises. No one is calling for moral compromise but many are calling for political give and take. It's deeply unhelpful to back away from agreement for political gains dressed up as a moral compromise. Have Christians been clear to the Executive parties about the political issues where compromise is welcome and the moral issues where it is not?

A few resonances with our submission

- "We also recognise that this issue (parades, commemorations and protests) involves not only rights but also responsibilities and relationships." It is encouraging that our focus on responsibility and relationships has been included. This language and tone is essential to resolve the issues of parades and protests.

- The section on Acknowledging Past Acts (pages 22 – 24) reflects some of our thinking on the past. We called for a statement of acknowledgement in our submission as one of a number of measures for dealing with the past. An acknowledgment will not solve every issue or right every wrong, but an acknowledgment of past wrongs issued with genuine remorse can be a helpful start.

- "Discussing language, timing and other matters in private before public statements are made." This concept of politicians creating trust and modelling good relationships in private and public was central to our submission. It is encouraging to see this suggestion about political culture and behaviour forming part of the proposed agreement.

Parades, select commemorations and related protests.

- We welcome the premise of working for a consensus on these issues based on rights, responsibilities and relationships.

- We welcome the idea of a shared code of conduct which applies to everyone involved in parades, protests and commemorations.

- The concept of separating the powers of mediation and adjudication between The Office for Parades, Select Commemorations, and Related Protests and the Authority for Public Events Adjudication has merit. However, it is not clear what measures are in place to avoid the problems faced by the existing Parades Commission eg if groups refuse to acknowledge the authority of these new bodies or an adjudication.

Flags and emblems

- The failure to reach agreement is disappointing but much wider issues were opened up for future discussion around cultural identity. As such a Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition was proposed to consult more widely on these issues. Again the Church has a prophetic message on the issue of identity going far beyond the issues of flags and emblems.

- "Any recommendations receiving broad support" from the Commission are to be brought to the NI Executive for further action. A potential difficulty is that, under the present political structures, these recommendations may be more likely to receive a veto instead of further action and implementation. Should Stormont's structure and system of representation be reviewed at the same time?

- If MLA's could themselves agree on the display of flags and emblems in a context of rights, responsibility and relationship within the confines of Stormont this would provide a helpful precedent for local councils and other public spaces.

Contending with the Past

- This is a huge area and while not everything about the past can be redressed, some things can be done. It is important that everything is not lost in the pursuit of nothing.

- An approach focused on healing and improving mental health and wellbeing is welcomed. We continue to encourage a movement away from society labelling people as victims.

- Again, where the Historical Investigations Unit (HUI) is involved, more detail is needed on measures to prevent this new body falling into the pitfalls, both practical and of perception that dogged the HET.

- We welcome the calls for public statements of acknowledgement. However, there must be clear procedures around making these statements to avoid people benefiting cynically from inadmissibility granted through the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR).

- The archive sounds like a very useful resource. It would be wise to begin collection of individual narratives soon before many accounts of living history die.

What you can do now

- A factsheet giving an overview and summarising the main proposals has been published. We encourage you to be informed and to inform the public debate.

- Pray – Please pray for our politicians; that pride gives way to humility, that perspective will be long-sighted, that common ground will be sought and gained, that arbitrary party lines in the sand will be crossed, that progress will be made without compromising important values, that the political climate becomes more hopeful, that there is an overflowing of bold imagination and action.

- Write – These days and weeks are critical. Do not underestimate the power of a writing a short letter to your local MLA. As little as 10 letters in one constituency could have a significant impact. Be encouraging and polite but very clear and direct about what you want and how you want your MLA to represent your views going forward.

- Consider using your vote or even standing for Council. Your vote is important, use it wisely. Why not even stand as a local councillor yourself?

- Speak differently - Don't complain; construct something new. In 2014, our public policy focus has a new narrative for Northern Ireland. Your voice, words and language matter. Christians speaking words of truth, hope, joy and life will affect the public square in Northern Ireland and shape our new narrative.