The United States of America and Northern Ireland


Richard Haass talks: does the US still have a helpful role to play in Northern Ireland?

December 17, 2013

Andrew Sanders

The team led by former US Envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haass is expected to deliver its proposals for the future of Northern Ireland this week.  Haass was appointed in July as the independent chair of an all-party group set up to bring forward a series of recommendations on the most divisive issues in contemporary Northern Ireland.  In particular, it sought to tackle the issue of flags, parades and protests and the issue of dealing with the past.

Haass suggested that the Irish tricolour could fly over Stormont alongside the flag of the United Kingdom on certain occasions (notably when Irish dignitaries like President Higgins were in Northern Ireland).  This suggestion met with predictable hostility from First Minister Peter Robinson and seems clumsy given the fact that it was only a year ago that Belfast saw serious riots after the decision was made not to fly the Union flag over Belfast City Hall every day.

Other proposals, reported by Liam Clarke in the Belfast Telegraph on 17 December include:

* The Union flag should fly at all councils on days designated by the Royal College of Arms but that councils should be allowed to opt out of this arrangement by not flying it at all. A Northern Ireland flag could be flown alongside the Union flag or all-year round.

* Victims of the Troubles should be allowed to opt into a truth recovery system on a voluntary basis.

* A two-tier parades body, one tier of which would promote dialogue and the other would adjudicate if agreement could not be reached. Uncontentious parades and demonstrations would be fast-tracked through.

* A Museum of the Troubles would be set up. 

Clarke speculated that "This [last] suggestion appears to substitute for the Maze Peace and Reconciliation Centre."

Brian Rowan, on twitter (@BrianPJRowan) further reported that an Independent Commission for Information Recovery could be set up and include the possibility of limited immunity.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly commented that "If the political will is there we can do this in 48 hours."  Kelly had, three days earlier, commented on a car bomb attack in central Belfast, stating:

Those that voice support for these groups, (whose) only allegiance is to violence, need to come forward and explain to the people what they aim to achieve by this reckless action...They are visionless and opponents of change who will not stop the people of Belfast and beyond from moving forward to a more equal and peaceful society.

The bomb, planted by a group identifying itself as Oglaigh na hEireann, an Irish name used by all versions of the Irish Republican Army, as well as the military forces of the Republic of Ireland, was one in a series of attacks over the festive season which caused significant disruption to the lives of those in the largest city in Northern Ireland.

Neither this bomb, nor the car bomb which partially exploded outside the entrace to the Victoria Square shopping centre (one of the landmarks of modern Belfast) on Sunday 24 November, killed anyone, but the potential for death or serious injury in both cases was high.  A firebomber on 17 December caused himself serious injury when the bomb he was attempting to plant in a city centre store went off prematurely.

What the purpose of these attacks really is remains unclear.  ONH (as the group is often labelled) used a recognised codeword to claim the attack, stating that it was "intended to cause maximum damage to an economic target", and that they "would continue to target commercial premises in the future."  They undoubtedly cause disruption, but they hardly do so to the extent that they might somehow force constitutional change in Northern Ireland.  The Provisional IRA, a group with significantly greater resources than groups like ONH, realised that its campaign, focused on economic targets for most of its duration, could not achieve the unification of Ireland.

One interesting side-effect of the bombing is that it undermines the legitimacy of Sinn Fein politicians, like Gerry Kelly, who were themselves involved in the Provisional IRA campaign.  Indeed, Kelly was a member of an IRA unit that planted four car bombs in central London on 8 March 1973.  One person was killed and over 200 were injured in these attacks.  The entire unit was arrested as they attempted to board a plane at Heathrow airport and Kelly received two life sentences.  He escaped from prison in 1983 and fled to Amsterdam, where he was recaptured in 1986.  He was released from prison in 1989 under the terms of the extradition agreement with Dutch authorities and became active in Sinn Fein.  He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and is currently Sinn Fein's spokesperson for policing and justice.

The simple act of planting a bomb in a city centre immediately brings the question of hypocrisy to the fore.  Is Kelly's condemnation of the bombs of another group, ostensibly fighting for the same aims as the Provisional IRA of 1973, justified in the light of his own actions forty years ago?  Was bombing justifiable then, but not now?  Irish unification, or rather British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, has not been achieved.  This provides a degree of legitimacy - perverse legitimacy perhaps, but legitimacy nonetheless - to these groups.  The perceive a sell-out on the part of politicians like Kelly, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, all now in prominent political positions in a divided Ireland.

The Haass proposals seem to be ignoring the very important issue of what has been termed "dissident" republicanism.  For a number of reasons, the groups who continue to seek the unification of Ireland through the use of physical force have been subdued until the recent car bomb attacks.  These attacks remind us that they retain both the capacity and the will to carry out attacks which could very easily cause death or serious injury.  

In ignoring the "dissident" dimension, the Haass team is effectively acknowledging that there is nothing that can be done about it.  The News Letter wrote, on 16 December, that the bombs were aimed at influencing the Haass talks and suggested that "the chances of reaching agreement on issues which have created an enormous societal chasm may be too complex to solve in just a few weeks."  That might be something of an understatement.  It also noted that the source of the bombs were areas where Sinn Fein had influence and suggested that the party should "take the lead in outing the dissidents from their lairs and pass necessary information to the PSNI."

Those recommendations that Haass seems likely to make might help to push the Northern Ireland peace process forward in a meaningful way, but the establishment of any sort of commission on the past will involve significant financial investment and absolutely must cater to all victims.  Recent revelations have tended to focus on the illegal activities of state forces, rather than the activities of the most deadly organisation in the Northern Ireland troubles: The Provisional Irish Republican Army.  

One very significant problem which could emerge with the establishment of inquiries into the PIRA is that it would further undermine Sinn Fein and, in particular, its politicians who were active volunteers during the PIRA campaign.  The dangers of providing more fuel to the "dissident" fire must be carefully considered.