It doesn’t sound as though the Haas talks are going to reveal anything new about the parties here. By and large the SDLP and Sinn Féin have been positive about possibilities, open to them if a bit cautious. The same could be said of the Alliance Party. The DUP and the UUP were a bit more sceptical but still prepared to engage.
Now as we approach the end, the noises coming out are different. The SDLP is taking a positive line. Alasdair McDonnell says “We’re hopeful, we want to see progress and there’s room here for progress”. In contrast, Peter Robinson has said there would be “steam coming out of my ears” if he thought the draft document produced by Haas would be the final paper. Mike Nesbitt, modelling his response on that deeply-reasonable woman, Margaret Thatcher, said there was “more out, out, out and we’re a long way from in, in, in”. Martin McGuinness on Twitter said: “Let’s prevent the paint lifting off the wall, the more excitable amongst us should cool their jets!”
There are two views you could take of the unionist response. One is that they have their eye on the alienated loyalist community and are keen to give an impression of being tough-knuckled negotiators who will force changes between draft and final document. The other is that the unionist response fits into a reflex mind-set: any change is bad change. Change the flying of the flag, change the routes that the Orange Order can march, change the system of government: all of that is (again to paraphrase Thatcher) bad, bad, bad.
In ways it’s not surprising. When you’ve been led by a man who thundered warnings of betrayal and sell-out for decades, it’s hardly surprising that you’ve learnt to be nervous of anything new. And when we consider the way in which unionism entered power-sharing – holding their political noses at who they had to work with – it’s again unsurprising that they view Haas change as bad-for-unionism change.
But let’s be optimistic and put it down to a very public negotiating tactic that aims to show the flag-protestors and the Orange Order that they, the unionist politicians, are no patsies, to be pushed into something that might diminish unionist culture or hold on things. Because the other interpretation – that if not bred in the bone, negativity and not-an-inchery have become second nature through force of habit – if that’s the case, then unionism is preparing to push itself back even further into a past that’s not coming back.