A week when the Executive finally got down to business in the North has produced, south of the border, two diametrically opposed interpretations of the purport of the Good Friday Agreement from two prominent personalities.
In Cavan, at an important, timely and highly significant visit to an Orange Lodge, President McAleese distilled the essence of the Agreement — a classic exposition of the orthodoxy endorsed, it was thought, by the vast majority of the people in a referendum. It was possible under the new dispensation, she declared, to claim Irish or British citizenship in the North, to be Irish, or British, or both; and in the South to be Orange and Irish.
This was the new concept of Irishness, based on tolerance and respect for difference, valuing diversity for the richness it brings to the mix, regarding, in John Hume's phrase, the unity of people more important than the unification of territory. It conveys a generous view of ourselves — generous, even optimistic, in believing that the Irish people could find the generosity to live up to it.
At the same time, the Lord Mayor of Dublin was enunciating an entirely different view of things, asserting the patriotic duty of citizens to resist the lure of bargain-basement shopping north of the border. Not quite a constitutional imperative, but getting there.
It was all right in the past, people in the North will reflect bitterly, for some to cross the border with murderous intent, but not now in peacetime, and certainly not with money in their purses to spend in the shops of Newry and Belfast.
Differential taxes are fine, it appears, as long as they operate in favour of the South. Borders have been dismantled, but only if the traffic is southwards, and not at all, it appears, in the minds of some people in high office.
Those who are tempted to do better for the kids at Christmas, to make scarce money stretch further by going north are being told that they should feel guilty by the very people who boasted of their addiction to retail therapy in New York when the dollar rate was favourable (and who paid very little tax on return). The Executive, for their part, have shown a new sense of urgency, and a unity of purpose in dealing with the backlog of decisions which needed to be taken. They have been able to do so by agreeing to put the transfer of responsibility for policing and criminal justice on a parallel track, to be dealt with by the parties as rapidly as they can. There is still a degree of uncertainty. For some diehard DUP, looking over their shoulders at Jim Allister, it is a victory over Sinn Fein and an indefinite postponement. For Sinn Fein, it is a matter of weeks and months — probably the middle of next year. For the sake of policing and the community, it should be sooner rather than later. One event, shrouded in tragedy for the families concerned serves to illustrate, more than anything, what might be the true state of policing in the North.
In a horrible road accident, four PSNI officers were killed when the vehicle they were in while rushing to help a colleague crashed into a wall near Warrenpoint. Two were full-time officers; two part-time. In the tragic circumstances of their death, these four young men presented an almost perfect microcosm of the new PSNI: two were Catholics, one a Presbyterian and one a member of the Church of Ireland. The two reservists — one a member of the Orange Order, one a Gaelic footballer — were workmates and good friends in a town which had its share of sectarian tension in the past.
They lived and worked together for the good of their community, and in death they were not divided.
Their deaths were indeed untimely, but their lives of service epitomised the vision of the Patten Report of a policing service representative of the whole community, drawing membership from all sides, serving the community and supported by it.
That support was shown in a way which symbolised the possibility of a new departure in the North.
Orangemen, Gaelic and soccer clubs, public representatives across the board, altar boys and choristers lined up to pay their tribute, while whole communities, irrespective of religion, class or political affiliation, turned out in a remarkable demonstration of shared grief and support for the bereaved families. The words of the clergymen, too, were interchangeable — service, community, tolerance, reconciliation and respect, the words used by Mrs McAleese in Cavan, assuaging the grief of the families in a tide of sympathy and a tribute to the courage and generosity of spirit of these young men in accepting the challenge of policing and building a new and better society.
And yet it is these men, or men and women like them, that the republican dissidents want to murder and maim.
Only last week, too, they threatened the lives of community workers who co-operate with the police. And, as the massive crowds at the funerals demonstrate, it is the community itself they are taking on.
This might be the way our |heroes today are challenging England's might, except it is no longer England, but the combined will of the community in the North who want and need an impartial, effective and accountable police service — and who believe that they now have one.