The power-sharing Executive, two years old today, has endured rows over policing and education, but then united to condemn renewed terrorist violence. Malachi O’Doherty argues that its problems have only made the Assembly stronger
The miracle of devolution was always going to outshine the practical reality. Ian Paisley senior perhaps understood that his greatest achievement was to lead his people across the Jordan. After that, it made sense to let them settle the new land themselves, for he would never do anything as historic again.
Things might have been easier if other makers of the deal had made similar decisions.
It doesn't follow that someone who has been a great campaigner for decades, a genius of oppositional truculence, will be a good negotiator. That people like Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson could manage one transition was achievement enough. That they might be able then to go on to a third phase was expecting a lot.
Of course, both McGuinness and Robinson had been big-time administrators before. As sometime chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, McGuinness had run a national organisation and made life and death decisions. Robinson had been chair of Castlereagh Council, one of the biggest and most successful councils in Northern Ireland.
So neither were raw beginners to the work of running an office and directing staff.
Both could delegate.
But they had not just to run the new administration, they had to manage their relationship with each other.
The preceding relationship between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley had astonished everyone. Prior to the completion of the deal, two years ago this week, much of the media speculated on whether the two men would shake hands. That their body language would signal that they were virtually doting on each other was something no one had predicted.
And that created a problem for Robinson, for how was he to rebuff the cheeky overtures of Martin McGuinness without looking as if he was withdrawing commitment from the deal?
Robinson took over as First Minister last year just when the relationship with Sinn Fein was getting difficult. The republicans were briefing that they might bring down the Executive altogether, if core demands were not met for an Irish language act and for the devolution of policing and justice powers.
Robinson was clear that he saw these as part of a Sinn Fein shopping list, a sectional party interest rather than prime concerns of the Executive itself. Sinn Fein's answer to that was that these were fundamental to their party's agreement to share power in the first place.
For five months the Executive could not meet because Sinn Fein was dissatisfied with progress.
The problem was resolved, at least temporarily, in the autumn, with an understanding that the devolution of policing and justice would proceed within a year.
Perhaps the tipping point was a statement from the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde warning of an imminent attempt by dissident republicans to kill a police officer.
It seems likely that Robinson and McGuinness viewed that prospect with alarm. There was a danger that, had such a killing occurred at a time at which the Executive was deadlocked on policing, it would not be possible to stitch it back together again.
With Executive business resuming, other crises emerged. The culture minister, Gregory Campbell, ruled out a favoured project of Sinn Fein's, the creation of a multicultural sports stadium at the Maze, incorporating a museum of the Troubles.
The education minister, Caitriona Ruane, failed to get cross party support for an alternative to academic selection. The result was a fragmenting of the education system, or: ‘a Protestant 11-plus and a Catholic 11-plus'.
Three murders by dissident republicans in March presented the Executive with its greatest challenge, a test that it passed.
Both Robinson and McGuinness made sacrifices to stand together and pledge that they would resist paramilitary threats to power-sharing. They had probably correctly identified the objective of the dissidents.
Robinson, faced with a political challenge from the Traditional Unionist Voice, accusing him of governing alongside terrorists who could not be trusted, in drawing closer to McGuinness put himself at risk of that case being made more cogently. As it turned out, TUV leader Jim Allister dropped the ball.
And Martin McGuinness appalled traditionalist republicans by describing the dissidents as ‘traitors to the island of Ireland'.
A consequence of that, as he would have expected from his own understanding of republican theology, was that he put his own life in danger.
But again, it was in the high wire act of the heroic gesture that political leaders had distinguished themselves, not in the everyday business of politics.
The Executive has still failed to fully resolve the devolution of policing and justice, and this at a time when threats from dissidents might make it progressively more difficult.
And ministers have come under severe criticism for double and triple jobbing, the London media having connected some of them into the larger story there about excessive expenses for MPs.
Some ministers and officials still say the kind of things that makes the wider world pity us, when they pronounce on climate change, homosexuality or evolution.
But we are where we are. We have a functioning Executive two years after the completion of the deal, 11 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
And there is some evidence remaining still that what doesn't break it makes it stronger.