The ambition of the public for the talks was clear: they aspired to a comprehensive agreement that would shift political engagement on all three difficult issues and end uncertainty and instability. We share that ambition and that’s what Alliance went in to achieve.
We applied three simple tests to the proposals: would they help create a shared understanding of shared society; would they embed and strengthen the rule of law; and would they move society forward?
Our honest assessment is that whilst progress was made – significant in places – parts of the package fell well short of what is required to deliver transformational change.
The greatest progress was achieved with respect to the past. At the outset, many felt agreement would prove elusive, given the complexity and sensitivity of the issue; however, victims and survivors created a space in which genuine progress was made. The moral obligation to address the needs of those most directly affected by the Troubles with urgency weighed heavily throughout the discussions and continues to do so.
There are no perfect solutions. No process can undo the hurt, the pain and the loss, but I genuinely believe the proposed mechanisms would address with integrity and compassion the needs of victims and survivors in a more comprehensive manner than is currently the case, placing their needs and wishes at its heart. They also offer wider society the hope that we need not remain forever prisoners of our past, but can learn from it and build a reconciled future.
On parades and protests, progress was made on structures; however, Alliance has never believed the main problem is an administrative one. To deliver the new start to parading and protests which people want, we must first address attitudes and behaviours.
Sadly, the main sticking point remains a lack of agreement on accountability and a legally enforceable code of conduct applying to all parades. These address directly behaviour and attitudes; balance the focus on rights with the related responsibilities; and recognise that provocative or sectarian behaviour is not just an issue at interfaces, but unacceptable anywhere. Its adoption would acknowledge both that all public space should be shared space and also our responsibility through our conduct to protect that.
For those who focus on structural reform, the real challenge is which body, when it says no to a parade or protest, will have its determinations respected. That fundamental rule of law question has yet to be answered.
On flags, there simply was no agreement. Unionists refused to even discuss Alliance proposals to deal with flags on lampposts, despite over 80 per cent of the public wanting it tackled. Nationalists would not compromise on the flying of the Union flag on designated days on all council and departmental headquarters.
Instead of agreement, we have a commission – but to what end? If parties were unwilling or unable to agree under the independent chairmanship of Richard Haass, how will they do so in a commission?
Further, the commission has the potential to keep the sectarian pot boiling for another 15-18 months, allowing one toxic issue to define and overshadow everything, including electoral politics, for the foreseeable future.
That may be the intention of some parties, who seek to exploit sectarian divisions, but it does not serve our community well. By contrast, Alliance wanted to see the flags dispute resolved so that we could move beyond it to focus on other important issues.
Instead, we have been offered more process rather than real progress, where the illusion of activity risks allowing some to continue avoiding tough decisions.
The real divide will ultimately not be between those who endorse Haass and those who don’t, but between those who will deliver on its promise and those who won’t.
These proposals are certainly not the ceiling of Alliance’s ambitions for society but they do represent a foundation on which to build. We are committed to implementing what is agreed, to closing the gaps that remain and are engaging constructively to achieve that, but that process must be focused on delivery not on delay.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading ittoday”.