Progress in the North - Mistrust is turned into possibility

YESTERDAY was a good day for this island; it was an especially good day for Northern Ireland.

It was a good day for democracy, political persistence and for all of us who believe in the primacy of dialogue and negotiated settlements over violence or bigotry.

Another major, and hopefully irreversible, step towards building a united society capable of responding to the great challenges of our time was taken.

The significance of the announcement, that policing and justice powers will be returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly 40 years, should not be underestimated. That is especially so as Unionism has done what so many of us in the Republic are glad we do not have to contemplate much less accept.

They have recognised that Northern Ireland’s future cannot be considered without the full participation of Sinn Féin. It makes no matter that peculiar arrangements of the D’Hondt system brought us to this point. Unionism eventually accepted that Sinn Féin and the community they represent must be allowed play a full part in the administration of the North.

Yesterday’s events may not represent the kind of absolute trust that facilitates the kind of partnership that the North – and maybe the rest of the island too – so badly needs but it is by far the most significant such gesture in recent times. It is the kind of stepping stone that will help replace mistrust with achievement.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who devoted considerable energy and time to this process, were relieved and pleased. Justifiably so.

Mr Cowen said the deal laid the foundations for a new future. “That better future must be built on mutual respect ... equality and tolerance and respect for each other's political aspirations and cultural expressions and inheritance.”

Mr Brown was equally effusive: “The achievements have been as great as they are inspirational.”

Both leaders, Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, DUP leader Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and the rest of the Sinn Féin team, and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward and all those others who worked behind the scenes, can feel a considerable degree of pride in their achievements.

Others should take a different message.

Dissidents and extremists of either hue must accept that they are utterly redundant. They must realise that if they persist in their simmering terror campaigns they are defying the democratically expressed wishes of an ever-more united people.

There will be challenges too over parades and let us hope that those involved in those particular conflicts will reach agreements that look to the future rather than the past. The kind generous of compromises that made yesterday’s milestone possible may be needed.

After yesterday’s announcement Martin McGuinness said that “this might just be the day ... that marks the start normal politics in the North”. The DUP’s Jeffery Donaldson said that “we want to foster ... respect and understanding, we want to move away from segregation ... we want a shared future where people live together”.

For all our sakes let us hope these fine ambitions are finally realised.


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