My first feeling was one of embarrassment. Whatever we may think of unionist politicians, they are our fellow Irish men and women. And the sight of them standing shed of their garments, politically naked, without the teensiest fig-leaf to cover their not-an-inchery, is something that provokes more discomfiture than satisfaction.
The first thing we must face is that the talks have been a total failure. Haas and O’Sullivan set out using a deadline to bring politicians here together in a unified front on flags, parades/marches and the past. They quickly conceded that they could do nothing final with flags, so we all swallowed hard and pinned our hopes on agreement about parades/marches and the past. Much optimism, to the surprise of many, appeared to be emerging regarding the past. Now all optimism is ended. Dress it up how you will, how Haass will, how Jeffrey Donaldson will, the outcome is the same: failure.
And not failure because the deadline was too tight. When you’ve got room to respond to objections not once or twice but seven times, you’re not exactly trying to bundle somebody into buying a pig in a poke. Dear Jeffrey has told us that the final draft failed because “some of the language in it” was simply unacceptable. What – you mean there were swear words in there, Jeffrey? No? Then what possible words? When I was an English teacher, if a student had presented an assignment and I had asked her to re-write it, giving advice on what points I found acceptable and what not, I’d expect her to reach a reasonable standard in the second or at a stretch the third draft. If I found myself faced with a seventh draft where the language was still totally unacceptable, I’d begin to worry that either I or the student was a basket case.
So is Richard Haass or Meagan O’Sullivan a basket case? I think not. They come with the highest credentials and the widest experience – and, above all, a deep reservoir of patience. So if the people who made the seven drafts are not to blame, the only possible conclusion is that it’s the people who are responding to it. The fault lies not with the document but with those to whom it was presented.
Which brings me to my second surprise about this whole affair: the guilty parties are named. Sinn Féin negotiators have said they’ll recommend accceptance of the document to their party, the SDLP has said the same thing albeit a little less enthusiastically. Alliance is on board. Which leaves the two unionist parties. Amazingly, neither Haas nor O’Sullivan nor the reporting media are attempting to say “The parties couldn’t agree”. They’re saying “The unionist parties wouldn’t agree”. For once the spotlight hasn’t been directed at all our parties with blanket accusations of their inability to achieve anything. This time the DUP and the UUP are centre stage, caught in the spotlight, with never a G-string or copper’s helmet to hide their shame.
For it is nothing short of shameful that the DUP refuses to accept the revised and revised and revised again document that two of the world’s leading negotiators have put forward and consider fair. But while I may feel shame, you may feel shame, the DUP and the UUP feel nothing of the sort. They are in fact proud to be bringing back to their followers proof that they are not people who are prepared to roll over and let the fenians have their way.
Except of course the Haass document involves no rolling over and no one having his or her way. It is a document which calls on all parties to give and take in all our interests. Unfortunately unionist politicians have shown either that they’re in thrall to their backwoodsmen and have acted against their better judgement, or that they themselves are the backwoodsmen.
What next? Publish the document in full, as Richard Haass has urged, and let the people judge what unionist leaders saw fit to reject. In the meantime, let’s join with the man holding the little placard outside the Stormont Hotel yesterday: let’s pray to Jesus that somehow, someway, unionist politicians will finally learn the meaning of the word “compromise”.