The fact that peace is more than the absence of war is so self-evident it hardly seems worthwhile pointing out. Nevertheless, the truism bears repeating in the particular context of the Northern peace process.
By any objective measure the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the ceasefires that precipitated the accord have been a stunning success. Adaily round of sectarian violence and tit-for-tat murders have given way to peace – imperfect as it is.
As imperfect as the peace is, it is also vulnerable. This is why the engagement of US diplomat Richard Haass, who begins to chair talks on outstanding contentious issues, is so vital if the political parties are to build on the institutions established by the peace deal.
Dr Haass will try to make progress on contentious issues that have proved too difficult for the political parties at Stormont to resolve. Chief among these issues will be flags, contentious parades and the much-touted concept of a shared future.
The participation of the political parties is important. But the process will only be a success if it can reach into the hearts of grassroots communities all across the North to ensure that the process is inclusive.
Too often discussion between the political parties – particularly between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin – resemble a cynical carve-up rather than a sincere attempt to create a shared future. There is little evidence that the political parties are really engaged on the key issues affecting communities such as educational disadvantage, unemployment, underemployment and fragmenting and disenchanted communities.
Dr Haass and his team will also have to keep a keen eye on the past in a region so often imprisoned by history. Nothing divides politicians in the North more than the history of the past 40 years and the legacy of sectarian political institutions and civil conflict.
Legacy of the past
There is not even political agreement on what constitutes a ‘victim’. Previous initiatives that have examined the legacy of the past have proved controversial as both sides sought to write history as the victor to the detriment of the other.
It’s appropriate that we look to the United States for help on these issues. The United States has been a good friend to Ireland and a good friend to the people of Northern Ireland in giving energy and resources to a seeming never-ending path towards a peace agreement at a time when others walked away. The engagement of the US, however, cannot allow the Irish and British governments to shrink from their responsibilities. Both governments, it should be remembered, are co-signatories of the Good Friday Agreement and therefore share responsibility for making the deal work on a permanent basis. Understandably the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron have been overwhelmed by dealing with an economic crisis. But they must not allow this to deflect them from the vital issues of reconciliation that are now once-again centre-stage in the North.
Churches also have their part to play in the process. Religious leaders have perhaps more right than others to be at the table given the fact that it was often people of faith who stepped beyond denominationalism and reached across the divide at a time when politicians were seeking to highlight and accentuate divisions.
The Haass process is a vital step on the road to a more permanent settlement. It deserves the support and encouragement of all people of goodwill.