Any examination of the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive, two years old today, must start from the premise that its very existence is a matter of wonder. That is all the more true, given that the principle partners in the administration, Sinn Fein and the DUP, represented for much of their own existence the extremes of local politics.
Both had experience of working as the junior partners in the previous Executive, but such was the enmity and bad grace between them, that few were confident they could ever find a working relationship.
To their credit they did, and they brought the bulk of their supporters with them. The rapprochement between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in their roles as First and Deputy First Minister during the initial stages of this administration was one of the most wondrous transformations of all.
These were men who had spent much of their adult lives at polar ends of the political spectrum and as hate figures in each other’s communities. The relationship between Mr McGuinness and new DUP leader Peter Robinson is much more business-like, but they have established a way to work together.
The power-sharing arrangement has one major inherent flaw; there is no effective opposition. The SDLP and UUP are also represented on the Executive and even Alliance may soon gain a ministerial post when policing and justice is devolved. Public opinion and the media have picked up the baton of opposition — not always to the liking of surprisingly sensitive ministers — and tried to hold the politicians to some sort of account. It is an imperfect solution, but a system of opposition may evolve.
There are obvious tensions within the Executive as evidenced by rows of Caitriona Ruane’s education reforms, the proposed siting of a national stadium at the former Maze Prison and the devolution of policing and justice.
The bickering and apparent lack of trust between the major partners led to a five-month hiatus in the operation of the Executive. At that point, there were genuine concerns that the political process could be set back severely, but, after interventions by the British and Irish governments, the show got back on the road.
Ultimately, the politicians, like the people of Northern Ireland in general, realised that power-sharing is the only political option likely to command
widespread support. After years of direct rule, the electorate welcomed the opportunity for local politicians to get their hands on the levers of somewhat limited, but nevertheless important, day-to-day power. The politicians have responded with some innovative and helpful measures in these recessionary times, such as freezing regional rates, introducing free prescriptions and travel for the over-60s as well as seeking new investment to replace lost jobs.
The Executive gained immensely in stature in one instant, when Martin McGuinness felt confident enough to stand outside Stormont Castle with Mr Robinson and Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, and denounce the dissident republican killers of Constable Stephen Carroll as “traitors”. At that moment, there was a collective realisation that things had changed utterly in Northern Ireland and that ‘the war’ was really over.
The dissident threat aside, local politics are increasingly about economic and social issues at the core of every democratic government’s work. The politicians of all parties are to be commended for that substantial, if laboured, progress.