By Steven McCaffery
A FURTHER summer of rioting – that left cracks in the power-sharing government and exposed tensions inside unionism – has sparked fevered speculation over the future direction of politics in Northern Ireland.
All sorts of groups have been swept into the mix: the DUP, Sinn Féin, the police, the Parades Commission, the Orange Order, the victims of violence, loyalists, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice.
But the only players in the peace process who have been notable by their absence are the British and Irish governments.
Behind the scenes London and Dublin have pressed Stormont leaders to take action to ease tensions.
But during a year of turmoil in Northern Ireland, where politicians have relied heavily on the police to hold things together, the British and Irish governments have played no significant public role.
This has largely been overlooked because of the elevation of the forthcoming Haass talks – which, it should not be forgotten, were initially planned as a safety valve to ease tension on issues such as flags and parades – but which have increasingly been billed as political penicillin to cure all Stormont’s ills.
But there is a further factor which obscures the absence of the two governments.
For years now the success of the peace process has been measured by the degree to which locally elected politicians can `stand on their own feet’ and `manage their own affairs’.
This is language that has been encouraged by the two governments but arguably overlooks the historic sectarian divisions that still exist.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 never envisaged Stormont flying solo and the strain on the wider peace process is showing.
The power-sharing government between unionists and nationalists was always supposed to be one leg of a three-legged stool.
The internal Northern Ireland arrangements were to be supported by strong East/West links with London, as well as North/South structures connecting with Dublin.
But the British and Irish governments are widely regarded as having disengaged.
Their legs of the stool have become barge poles to keep Stormont at a distance: “Goodbye Belfast – see you at the next cross border meeting…”
Stormont is rightly criticised for the continuing instability, but part of the reason the stool is wobbling is because the London and Dublin legs are weak.
The flags crisis of last winter exposed the level of political disinterest in London and the erratic role of the Secretary of State’s office.
The Irish government is overwhelmed by economic woes and when its coalition parties do raise Northern Ireland issues it is often through the prism of their growing electoral battle with Sinn Féin in the Dáil.
And so, perhaps conveniently, the measure of success in the peace process has become the degree to which Belfast politicians can go it alone.
Huge progress has been made since the 1990s and today’s events bear no resemblance to the terror of the past – but all the major steps forward in the peace process have been made with outside help or outside pressure.
Now the talks to be chaired by former US government envoy Richard Haass provide a golden opportunity for the British and Irish governments to step up their public role in affairs.
There is a major focus on how the talks will discuss disputes over flags and parades, but that arguably deals with the symptoms of division and not the root cause.
It is being forgotten that the agenda for the talks also includes the more ambitious target of dealing with the fallout from the decades of conflict to help build real reconciliation – but that would require major input from the British and Irish governments.
And as things stand, it is the one area of the Haass agenda where observers are least hopeful of progress.
There is no pressure on the British and Irish governments to change that.
The public debate is focused entirely on whether Stormont politicians can crack a more limited deal, and then get on with their work.
But if Peter Robinson’s leadership comes under further pressure, if more of the deals brokered between his party and Sinn Féin unravel, there may not be much more work to get on with.
Meanwhile, the mistakes of the past continue to echo through the present.
The riot that hit Belfast city centre earlier this month took place on Royal Avenue. The same street was the scene of sectarian fighting as far back as 200 years ago.
It is still possible that Northern Ireland politicians could make the necessary compromises to move the peace process forward, but some appear unwilling to engage in realistic negotiations, while others are focused on next year’s elections.
This divided society continues to need as much outside help as it can get.
After the Belfast riots, London and Dublin shouldn’t be allowed to get away in the smoke.