There have been many milestones in the recent history of the northern state. Some have been incredibly difficult and tragic. The foundation of the state; the partition of our small island; the repression of the unionist regime at Stormont and the decades of conflict, have all left a sad and bitter legacy which will take a long time to completely deal with.
But more recently there have been different kinds of milestones. Moments of hope. The beginnings of new friendships and the possibility of a new and better future.
Four years ago, on Monday March 26th, Ian Paisley and this blog led respective party delegations into the member’s dining room in Parliament Buildings at Stormont. This event followed years of work and some very focussed months, weeks and days of negotiations. Ian Paisley and I sat at the centre of our parties delegations.
Beside and behind us set our colleagues. At 12 noon the television feed went live and the first thing viewers saw was Ian Paisley and this blog sitting together looking at the camera.
It was one of those moments when it was clear to everyone that something important was taking place. The scene was set for the formal opening of the Assembly on May 8th.
This visual presentation was an ingenious solution to a concern some within the DUP had expressed about Mr. Paisley and I sitting side by side at the same table.
Sinn Féin, and this blog in particular, were very focussed on the need to create a moment which could not be dismissed. There had been a number of false dawns and a few very important moments wasted by the silliness of some commentators. This time everyone needed to know something special had occurred. Something that couldn’t be trivialised or dismissed.
So Ian and I sitting side by side was an important image. It was resisted almost up to the last minute by the DUP negotiators. Sinn Féin refused to concede. Then someone had the bright idea of arranging the tables in an inverted V shape which allowed us to sit side by side but for sensitive DUP types not at the same table. And it worked.
Last Wednesday, four years later, the Assembly at Parliament Buildings concluded its first ever complete four year term.
In most other societies that would be the norm. In this it was a first. And, quite an achievement, marked in part by the friendly banter of former opponents.
Since the Good Friday Agreement was accomplished in April 1998 there have been three Assemblies elected. None of the previous Assemblies succeeded. All were the victim of an intransigence based on the old politics, a failure of leadership by the Ulster Unionist Party, and the usual machinations of the British government.
The last four years have had their difficulties. Disagreements within the DUP and a change of leadership created problems. Jim Allister sought and failed to provide a hardline unionist alternative to the DUP. The SDLP and UUP tried to play the game of being in government and out of government at the same time and only succeeded in making themselves seem increasingly irrelevant. And there has been the economic recession and the decision by the British government to cut a huge slice off the north’s financial budget.
And then there have been violent efforts to undermine the institutions. These too have failed.
The Assembly and local government elections will take place on May 5th – the 30th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands.
There will be political disagreement between the parties during the campaign. That’s natural as each seeks to maximise their support. The SDLP and the UUP will again seek to present Sinn Fein and the DUP as the problem parties – a tactic they tried to use last time and which failed.
In recent days the UUP has looked like a party at war with itself and Michael McGimpsey’s disgraceful decision not to go ahead with the £40 million radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin, which the Irish government was paying one third of, has drawn widespread criticism.
But the fact is that progress has been made. Decisions have been taken by locally accountable Ministers that are benefiting citizens, whether in education or agriculture or regional development or job creation. The peace process is entrenched and the institutions are functioning. In west Belfast Sinn Féin has succeeded in securing investment into significant projects like Conway Mill and An Culturlann, as well as creating jobs.
So, the focus for supporters of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is obvious. Build support for the institutions while electing those parties you believe can best articulate and advocate for you and your political goals.
It is also important that in the election campaign which has now begun, as witness the election posters appearing on lampposts, that citizens endorse those parties determined to secure the full implementation of the Agreement and which seek to defend it from any threats.
There are still a number of serious matters arising from the Good Friday and other agreements that have not implemented.
This blog raised these in Taoiseach’s questions in the Dáil last week. I reminded Enda Kenny that the various agreements call for the creation of a North-South Parliamentary Forum; an Independent Consultative Forum; a Bill of Rights; and the introduction of an Irish Language Act.
There was also a commitment by the Irish government in 1998 to legislate for northern representatives to be able to speak in the Dáil.
And there is the threat posed by a British Conservative government, allied to the UUP, which last week decided that from this Monday the critical policy of 50-50 recruitment to the PSNI is to end.
This is a grievous retrograde step which risks damaging the progress that has been made in recent years to build a policing service that has the support and confidence of the nationalist community. It must be challenged.
So, a lot of good work has been done. But the next term of the Assembly has to see even better delivery in the provision of employment; a reduction in poverty; a better health service, and much more, including greater co-operation north and south . See you on the election trail.