Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

How a rational politics has finally prevailed

The past decade has seen more political progress than most people dared hope for. But why did it take so long, ask David McKittrick and David McVea

The new edition of our book, Making Sense of the Troubles, is a fully updated version the original, which was published in 2000 when brooding clouds of doubt and uncertainty hung over Northern Ireland. No one then knew if an enduring peace was possible.

The years since have been both highly eventful and unexpectedly positive. There has been a decline in violence and much political progress, producing a more stable political settlement than most people in 2000 had dared to hope for.

While aspects of that deal have their critics, practically everyone regards it as preferable to what went before.

There are still occasional crises, but most of these tend to be political, rather than violent and are generally settled by negotiation.

Who would have guessed that today one of the grumbles about Stormont is that its proceedings are too dull?

In 2007, people did not dance in the streets when two formidable warriors, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, linked up as joint heads of a new Stormont, declaring that the war was over and would be replaced by a new era of co-operation.

It flew in the face of history, experience and intuition to think of Paisley and McGuinness promising to run Northern Ireland together for the benefit of all.

The general desire for peace was, and is, so strong that it would be easy to be complacent. That error has certainly been made in the past: in the 1930s, one historian airily wrote that political and religious difficulties "have been dissolved in the light of modern reasonableness".

The Troubles have left so many political and, above all, human scars that the future is hardly likely to be completely tranquil.

Yet the recent surge of 'modern reasonableness' means that a return to full-scale violence is scarcely imaginable. Northern Ireland is never going to be a utopia, but nor is it fated to continue in violence.

If there was a single, central lesson drawn from the Troubles, both by politicians and people, it was that compromise and co-operation had created the chance of a new start.

A new political dispensation has now emerged, while British-Irish relations have entered a golden age. All but a few specialist soldiers have gone. The IRA has departed and loyalist paramilitary activity has plummeted.

This settlement has received overwhelming endorsement in a number of elections.

And we have seen hugely symbolic and even historic moments involving the Queen, in her visit to Dublin and her Belfast handshake with Martin McGuinness.

The world and almost everyone in Northern Ireland now simply wants the new political axis to provide stable government.

Last year's Assembly elections produced a striking endorsement of the DUP-Sinn Fein brand of powersharing.

And, although many voters complained that the Assembly system was inefficient and expensive, only one of the 108 members is opposed to its existence.

In addition to a greater sense of stability than Northern Ireland has ever known, the sense is emerging that something close to a fair society is coming into being.

Occasional instances of religious discrimination still surface, but these - once so common - are now rarities.

Historical and structural differences continue to affect the Catholic working class disproportionately, but few attribute any remaining differentials to discrimination.

Yet, although political and societal advances went beyond what most had ever thought possible in 2000, many difficult problems remain.

While a transformation took place in policing, the persistence of the dissident republican menace means change sometimes comes frustratingly slowly. Many issues remained unresolved, including the question of marches, especially loyalist parades in, or near, Catholic districts.

Meanwhile, the issue of how to deal with the legacy of the past and how to bring closure to the bereaved and the aggrieved so far defies solution.

Division remains an unfortunate fact of life, even though it far less frequently leads to actual conflict.

More than 90% of children continue to go to single-religion schools.

And while most of Belfast has the appearance of a modern city, dozens of peacelines are still there in its back streets as monuments to mistrust and communal wariness.

Their disappearance will only come about when those living near them feel secure enough to approve their removal.

The establishment of the new settlement reflects a new sense that politics can work, with the Assembly providing a level playing field of a type which had never before existed.

Many voters do not love it - many would wish for improvements to it - but, overall, a substantial majority voted for it and seem to value it.

All this may not be the end of history, but it looks like the end of a dreadful era that left over 3,700 dead and countless others injured, or bereaved.

The title of our book is Making Sense of the Troubles. Most people, after all the years of disruption, conflict and pain, eventually learned to make some sense of the Troubles.

The pity is that it took so long for the constructive to prevail over the destructive.

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