Archive for May, 2007

Northern Ireland – looking forward

May 9, 2007

I think that The Guardian, in its leader today probably said all that needs to be said about the new Northern Ireland Assembly and the tasks that now face it.

There will no doubt be many difficult moments head, and perhaps yesterday’s good spirit will turn sour very soon, but it is hard to imagine a return to the sort of strife that made Northern Ireland one of Europe’s most lasting political sores. Martin McGuinness and Mr Paisley have been pushed into office by the sustained efforts of prime ministers and presidents in Britain, Ireland and America over 20 years. But devolved government now seems to have found an energy of its own. The peace process is over. The political one is just about to begin.

On a day that put ceremony and sentiment to the fore, many people deserved praise, including Tony Blair, whose great efforts have paid off as he prepares to leave office. Others watching from London, including John Major and David Trimble, played their part. So did many Northern Ireland secretaries, including Peter Hain. But the greatest achievement lies with the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, behaving with a public generosity that was once unimaginable and which has done much to carry their communities with them.

Nothing that happened yesterday solved the great problems that face Northern Ireland. Having entered government, Mr Paisley, Mr McGuinness and their ministers must face the prosaic reality of ministering¬†reasonably poor and remote corner of Europe. The indulgence shown to Nrthern Ireland during its conflict has left it too dependent on the state for wealth and employment. The Treasury’s new funding package cannot overcome the structural weakness of a society that gets 60% of its income from the London government.Belfast now casts envious eyes at prosperous Dublin, booming on business growth and driving up property prices in the north. Freed from the distractions of conflict, Northern Ireland‘s leaders must begin to match this success.Education, water rates, planning rules – issues that have been left to London ministers – now return unsolved.

That is one reason why yesterday’s events were only a step in Northern Ireland‘s development, not any sort of completion. What happens next is far from clear. Much will depend on the Irish general election on May 24, which will see the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, attempt to win a third term in power. Success in the north may help him shake off questions about the probity of his government. But it might also help Sinn Fein gain votes south of the border. A united Ireland, in a formal constitutional sense, remains a distant prospect. But the island of Ireland is becoming more united economically and socially by the day. The old bastions of unionist confidence have fallen – with Mr Paisley’s support for a cross-Ireland rate of corporation tax only one example.

Politics can suddenly bring bright and unexpected moments of great hope. Sometimes the spirit lasts, changing society for the better.Sometimes it fades into resentment. The task facing Northern Ireland‘s new rulers is to use yesterday’s spirit to better the lives of its people. Their work has only just begun¬†