By Jim Nicholson MEP
In the early hours of New Year’s Eve, a document was placed in front of the five Executive parties on the basis that we would agree it in full or reject it in its totality. It was understood by all, including Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, that the Ulster Unionist Party would need to take it to their Executive body. When this happened, the Executive decided that the document as a whole was not viable and therefore unacceptable to us.
However this is not to say that the process to find positive resolutions is over; nor do we think that the issues of parades & protests, flags & emblems and dealing with the past should be allowed to slip off the agenda. The status quo is no more palatable than the full text of Haass 7.
The three issues Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan were tasked to facilitate talks on encompass some of the biggest challenges we face as a society and it would be unfair to allow those issues to continue to go unresolved, given their toxicity.
But already we have stepped outside the negotiations of the past six months into a very ambiguous land. In a glimpse into the often fractious relationship within the Office of the First and deputy First Ministers we have heard contradictory messages coming from the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland. In the immediate fall-out from New Year’s Eve, the DUP called for a working group to see how we might resolve the differences over the text of Haass 7, while Sinn Fein wanted a working group focused solely on the implementation of Haass 7. How ironic that a process instigated by FM and DFM to encourage compromise should end with the two figures at loggerheads.
Having been central to the successful campaign to persuade the European Union to invest heavily in underpinning peace in Northern Ireland, including a new PEACE IV fund, I was surprised to see the lack of debate, never mind agreement on the matter of who should fund the structures proposed in Haass 7. The document itself offers nothing beyond last minute lip service to costs. If resources would have to be taken from the Block Grant, the most likely current option, which departments are we proposing to top slice? Health? Housing? Education? Economic development? Given that our most vital departments are already stretched, not least Health with the major incident at RVH Accident & Emergency in January, can we justify taking more money away to channel into new proposed structures?
The Belfast Agreement was signed sixteen years ago. It promised much, not least in terms of a “new start”. Many would argue they have been subjected to under-achievement, across the main themes of mutual trust, economic prosperity and better government. Dealing with the Past, alongside Reconciliation and building a truly Shared Future, are landmines that, unless defused, have the capacity to derail our political focus, without warning.
As a senior and long-standing Member of the European Parliament (MEP), I see many forms of “normal” politics, so feel I am in a good position to assess what’s right for Northern Ireland.
The “normal” I crave for Northern Ireland sees a universal commitment to ensuring the terrorism we endured for so many years never happens again; our children and grandchildren expect, deserve and demand no less. That requires a fair resolution to issues such as Parades & Protests, Flags & Emblems, and Dealing with the Past. My colleagues and I will not be found wanting in that regard.
Normal politics also requires that we offer the electorate choice. That is why I support the Ulster Unionist Party’s policy of introducing an Official Opposition at Stormont. Yes, I accept that in our “normal”, the devolved government must be cross-community and therefore a coalition. But no, that does not mean we should fear creating the space for an Official Opposition, with the space and resource to offer the voter a proper alternative. By space and resource, I mean nothing more than speaking rights in the Assembly, days when the Opposition set the matters for debate, and a fair allocation of the staff and facilities available to all MLAs who wish to research policy development. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not about money.
Haass did not deliver. The issues remain. I want better. I want to do what’s right for Northern Ireland. The solution is obvious. Let the Parties of Government say what they intend to do, the Official Opposition offer the alternative and leave it to the voters to decide.
Jim Nicholson MEP has served Northern Ireland in the European Parliament since 1989, becoming one of Europe’s most experienced and respected politicians. He has previous experience of elected service in local government, Stormont and Westminster.