Richard Haass talks: Back at a crossroads

O'Sullivan and Haass
Image caption Professor Meghan O'Sullivan and Dr Richard Hass were unable to reach an agreement with the Northern Ireland parties.

It is 45 years since the former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill made his famous televised pitch to moderate opinion in the "Ulster Stands At the Crossroads" speech.

Intentionally or not, Richard Haass echoes Captain O'Neill's phrase in his draft document on flags, parades and the past.

"We are standing at a crossroads in Northern Ireland" the Haass blueprint argues. "This is a remarkable opportunity to make bold choices to address the issues that hold us back from meeting our society's full potential.

"Further delay will risk an increase in levels of public disengagement. The passage of time - and the passing of those with information to share and wounds to salve - will also deprive Northern Ireland of the chance to learn as much as possible about its history while there is still time to do so.

"This loss would compound the social and emotional costs of our prolonged conflict".

The language was designed to be a solemn declaration by the five main Stormont parties. However, as we now know, the consensus required for them all to subscribe to the document was lacking.

Outside help

Whatever you think of the Richard Haas blueprint on flags, parades and the past and its confusing string of new and sometimes clumsily named quangoes you have to admire Dr Haass's consummate diplomatic skills.

Most of us, if we had been deprived of that much sleep and flown back and forth across the Atlantic only to return home empty handed, would have been forgiven the temptation to treat our hosts to a few pointed home truths.

Instead the former US envoy thanked all sides for their efforts and insisted the lack of agreement should not be characterised as a failure.

Dr Haass and his co-chair Prof Meghan O'Sullivan hope the new structures they suggested for managing parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles will one day become a reality.

But Stormont politicians don't have a great track record for resolving their differences without outside help - witness the many months of meetings held by the community relations Cohesion Sharing and Integration group.

Of course, there are no guarantees that if the Haass report had been fully agreed and implemented the tensions of 2013 would not be repeated in 2014.

The planned new Office for Parades, Select Commemorations and Related Protests together with its companion Authority for Public Events Adjudication might have enjoyed a honeymoon period, particularly if the Grand Orange Lodge had been convinced of their merits.

But that period could have proved very brief - ending the first time the Adjudication Authority had to wield its power to rule on a contentious parade or protest.

Anti-climatic

Equally, the proposed single Historical Investigations Unit and Independent Commission for Information Retrieval may have replaced the current disjointed approach to the past. Yet the HIU's planned use of full police investigative powers and the ICIR's ability to grant limited immunity would have had the potential to stir controversy as well as, potentially, to shine light on the hidden corners of the past.

Moreover the prospect of the Information Retrieval Commission's thematic unit examining broad patterns in the Troubles had the potential to spark new battles over "rewriting history".

So change would have carried risks, but then so does the status quo. For now, the Parades Commission - much vilified by the Orange Order - will continue to play a pivotal role during the inevitable tensions of the summer marching season, while the troubled past will still be dealt with in a piecemeal manner.

London and Dublin will face calls to play a more active role, while the Stormont parties consider how to resurrect something positive from the anti-climactic conclusion to Dr Haass and Prof O'Sullivan's attempts to act as honest New Year's Eve peace brokers.