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US peace envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass has huge task ahead

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richard haass
Richard Haass

The recalled American peace envoy Richard Haass headed to Belfast this week where he will see first hand the outpouring of sectarian hate from Loyalist demonstrators forced away from Nationalist areas.

If Haass needs a reminder of what a witch’s brew he is heading into he need only visit Short Strand or Ardoyne and see the damage done to Northern Ireland’s image by the mobs of yobs.

Watching the coverage, the words of William Butler Yeats describing the Playboy of the Western World riots come to mind.

“You have disgraced yourselves again.”

The scenes carried worldwide showed vicious attacks on police, every kind of missile available being thrown, sectarian rants and chants and a downright depressing vista that catapults Northern Ireland’s image back into the bad old days.

The forbearance of the police in the face of such provocation was remarkable as the mob made it clear they were out to injure or even kill them in the execution of their duty.

Speaking to a Northern Ireland business figure this week, he despaired of ever getting more investment as long as such tribal animosity is stirred up.

Yet he was quick to point out that marches all over the North went peacefully, none more than in Derry where accommodation between the Orange Order and local Nationalist residents has completely defused what used to be a perennial flashpoint.

If Haass does nothing more, getting Orange Order leaders talking to interface Nationalist communities is a critical.  There were half-hearted attempts made this year but they came far too late.

The issue of parades and flags come down to identity. It seems okay for these same Loyalists to burn Tricolors for their Orange bonfires, yet they complain bitterly when their beloved Union Jack is given only equal billing with the Tricolor.

Like all else in Northern Ireland, symbolism is critical. Treating both communities equally is what the Good Friday Agreement is about.  Elements on one side never got that message.

Haass is a sophisticated negotiator who still harbors ambitions of being secretary of state some day in a Republican administration. He knows his job in Northern Ireland will be tough but not impossible as George Mitchell proved.

The key issue for unionism must be to stare down these yobs in their midst who are making the jobs of responsible politicians impossible.

It was obvious prior to this week’s march that Orange Order leaders were fanning the flame of sectarian outrage in their speeches, demanding the right to march by Nationalist neighborhoods.

Haass must confront such issues with American plain speaking, forcefully stating that such behavior is no longer permissible. He must seek the establishment of a reconciliation group to discuss the deep grievances, real and imagined, felt on both sides.

But mostly he must, like Mitchell, listen and then act. His arrival in the North is the one bright moment in what has been a dreadful week of violence. He can make all the difference.

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