Words are slippery things. We think we have a grip on their meaning, then someone uses them in a different sense and they slide out of our understanding again. One such word is “compromise”. In my lexicon it has implications of two more or less equal parties with markedly differing views who move towards a middle point to find agreement. This has some bearing on the article by Jeffrey Donaldson which appeared on a Queen’s University Compromise after Conflict website.
Jeffrey compliments Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan for the work they put in and adds with a note of sadness that the parties involved failed to reach agreement. He then goes on to make it clear that this failure is the fault of Sinn Féin, the SDLP – oh, and did I mention the Alliance Party? Them too. In short, everyone but unionist politicians.
Let me deal with the notion of two more or less equal parties with different views. This was not the case at the Haass talks. Peter Robinson is the First Minister, Martin McGuinness the Deputy First Minister. And while we’re given assurances that they are co-equals, at the same time unionist politicians use the nightmare of a republican First Minister to help frighten unionist voters into the voting booths. In terms of flags, parades and the past, there is no equivalence between unionist and republican/nationalist. The union flag flies, unionist marches are the 95% norm and the past for republicans/nationalists, since the inception of the state, has been one of subjugation.
Haass tried to construct a document that all parties could sign up to. He was sent back to do his homework not once or twice but six times by unionist politicians. The DUP and the UUP looked at the seventh version and said “Not good enough”. Everyone but unionist politicians looked at the document , swallowed hard and agreed to sign up to its terms.That’s rather different from Jeffrey’s sketch of two disagreeing parties.
As to flags: unionist politicians wished to fly the Union flag 365 days a year (366 on Leap Years) over Belfast City Hall. Republican and nationalist politicians argued that divided loyalties would be best served by flying both the tricolour and the union flag, or no flag. But they compromised – let the flag on Belfast City Hall follow general custom and fly on special occasions such as the Queen’s birthday. In short, they moved from both flags/no flag to a middle position where there was a limited flying of the Union flag. This compromise was met with outrage by unionist politicians and with violence by loyalist groups.
Jeffrey is also indignant that so much attention is given to state killings during the Troubles:”This is no way to deal with our troubled past and is certainly no way to encourage true reconciliation”. He conveniently omits the expectation of most citizens that the security forces should operate by higher standards than those he would label as ‘terrorists’. He also ignores that republicans are willing to accept their share of responsibility for the suffering experienced during the Troubles and believe that all parties to the conflict should contribute to a Truth and Reconciliation process.
As for parades, Jeffrey sees any general rules governing parades (95% of which are unionist) as being ‘draconian’. Again, if we were talking about compromise, wouldn’t something approaching parity be the case if unionist marches didn’t so wildly out-balance republican/nationalist marches? Better still, if the absurd custom of celebrating the victory of Protestant William over Catholic James were abandoned completely, along with the 150 nationalist/republican parades, wouldn’t we then have reached a compromise that would point us towards a shared future, not one of annual antagonism?
For decades, Northern Ireland was ruled by unionism, with discrimination and gerrymander the order of the day. Because politicians like Jeffrey interpret any movement towards compromise and parity of esteem as taking away from the natural order of things – that is, an Orange state – he presents change as the unreasonableness of republicans and nationalists in action.
The unhappy fact is that unionism, having traditionally had so much, feels the pain of any compromise more keenly. Not just that: it paints compromise as unreasonable demands by republicans/nationalists.”Not an inch!” is still the dominant thinking. Until Jeffrey and unionist politicians of like mind accept the need for change and compromise that removes the triumphalism inherent in the present use of flags and parades, the unhappy past will continue to haunt us and the patient work of Haass and O’Sullivan will indeed have been a waste of time.