Failure just another step towards success

The Stormont talks led by those very patient Americans, Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, aimed at consolidating progress made in the North in recent years, may not have ended in an entirely positive way but it is not unreasonable to hope that even this inconclusive episode represents an advance of sorts, especially in a society still so unable to be at ease with itself.

It is not as if the whole process has finally concluded just because this particular attempt to build a society embracing two often bitterly divided communities did not work out as the great majority of people on these islands would have wished — that is if they consider the issues at all.

Outstanding, sometime incendiary issues around identity and the past, divisive symbolism or celebrations will have to be discussed again and finally resolved before the North’s population, and by extension everyone on these islands, can focus on resolving all of the other great challenges the world so readily presents.

It would be too easy — and maybe predictable — to be smugly dismissive and wonder why it seems so very difficult to establish conditions, to observe principles of tolerance and inclusivity that are normal in most societies but it seems, as ever, that those prepared to be reasonable — or simply moderate — must harden their attitudes if they are not to be outflanked by the hard-liners fringing their own community.

In this instance, it appears that Peter Robinson and the DUP found it impossible to endorse the final Haass/O’Sullivan draft without, in their own view at least, running the risk of losing ground to Unionism’s far right in local or European elections scheduled for May. DUP reticence, provoked by the spectre of Traditional Unionist Voice hardliner Jim Allister and his colleagues usurping their position, may have been the stumbling block this time but, at some point or other in this almost never-ending process, each participant was similarly isolated. This political reality is why, in the long ago, Sinn Féin replaced the SDLP as the dominant nationalist party in the North.

This cycle of political gazumping needs to be broken if the unending integrity of the North’s polarisation is to made an irrelevant anachronism in the region’s day-to-day life.

One of the ways that this great challenge might be realised would be to make the currency of hardliners of all hues — hatred, fear, and bigotry — worthless. This is, of course, far more easily said that done but if it is to be achieved then generosity and concession may have to be — again — the order of the day. Many of those involved in the Stormont talks, and the scores of exercises like it over the last decades, will insist that they have conceded enough. If they had, the talks would have ended with an agreement that would have put moderation and possibility at the centre of the North’s future. Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan may not have secured the result their efforts deserved, but that it concluded with only one participant unable to take a leap of faith is no small achievement and it augers well for the next inevitable round of talks.

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