When the Good Friday Agreement was signed 15 years ago, and later accepted by 71% of the people of the province, there was a palpable sense of optimism.
The feeling was that at last the conflict was over and that a purely political future, offering hope to every section of the community lay ahead. It was an historic deal and, given the preceding 30 years of bitter violence, an outcome that many feared might never be achieved.
Today it is only right to laud the courage and convictions of those who set aside historic enmities in the hope of forging a brighter future and also the efforts of the British, Irish and American politicians who encouraged and facilitated the agreement. While the optimism of 1998 has been replaced in many minds in the intervening years by a weary acceptance of an imperfect peace, we have to accept that Northern Ireland today is a much better place than it was for previous generations.
Could we have imagined even at the signing of the Agreement that Sinn Fein and the DUP would be the major partners in government? Could we have imagined Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen or urging nationalists and republicans not to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher? Could we have imagined Peter Robinson being an advocate for integrated education and working closely with Mr McGuinness?
Yet, have we failed to fully grasp the opportunities afforded by the Good Friday Agreement? It was not a panacea for our problems, but provided a stability within which to tackle them. On that basis many, including this newspaper, would argue that the momentum for change has been disappointing.
This has been noted in one particular area – the move to create a truly shared society – by the Westminster and US governments, who have made it clear to local politicians that they expect movement on this crucial issue, and quickly. Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has used this anniversary to state clearly that financial aid from London to stimulate the Northern Ireland economy is dependent on the Executive reaching milestones, including a shared future policy.
Another concern is the failure to adequately address the legacy of the past. Many of those bereaved or injured in the conflict can argue validly that they accepted the release of paramilitary prisoners in the hope that their sacrifices would be remembered in a positive manner. To date progress on this has been limited and largely confined to investigations into unsolved murders. Even the definition of who was a victim remains contentious.
Our politicians must now accept that the pace of change here is in their hands. They need courage and the statesmanship to truly transform this society, for as dissident republicans and the loyalist flag protests show, there are dangerous elements willing to step into the breach if one appears and an historic opportunity will be imperilled.