The past is always present in Northern Ireland, a fact that U.S. peace envoy Dr. Richard Haass will be powerfully aware of given his previous spell as envoy there.
Three hundred years seems a drop in the bucket of time past, and insults offered centuries ago are as alive and vivid as if offered yesterday.
Haass was back in Belfast last week trying to find a way to traverse those hard last yards to finalize the success of the peace process.
The key issues are what they have been for generations — flags, symbols, marches, parity of esteem. The solutions seem as convoluted as ever.
The word is that it was the DUP, the party led by Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, which wanted the American intervention on this occasion, and that Sinn Fein and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness felt the issues could be solved between the two parties.
That is quite the turnaround from the George Mitchell and Bill Clinton era when U.S. intervention was met with great suspicion on the Unionist side and approval among Nationalist parties.
Haass is a consummate diplomat who acquitted himself very well during his time as President George W. Bush’s peace envoy.
He must have signed up for a new mission confident that he could help achieve a breakthrough on the issues confronting the North.
What is most needed is steel in the spine of democratic unionism to face down the rioters and provocateurs who made this summer a marching hell.
McGuinness has not been afraid to confront and call out dissident IRA forces when they attempt to kill security forces or incite riots.
Robinson needs to show the same steel when facing the troublemakers on his own side. Too often it looks like mob rule is the fallback position of unionism when crisis hits.
Haass’s job is surely to create a framework where rules hard and fast can be created to govern inflammatory issues such as marches and flags.
It has been proven in Derry, for instance, when such an agreed framework exists marches can go off without incident and cooperation is widespread.
Within that framework there needs to be a political mechanism agreed by all the parties as to how cooperation with the police and communities across the divide can be ensured.
The number of marches allowed has to be agreed upon and routes cleared to assure that no rights are trampled upon or marches forced through.
Parity of esteem was the buzzword when the Clinton era began. It needs to be that again with a sense that both communities are being treated equally.
If Haass can achieve that he will have accomplished a great deal. The task is not easy, but not impossible either.
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