Viewpoint: Political stability is within our grasp
Every New Year dawns with the wish for better times ahead. This year there are grounds for optimism that hope, at last, can be translated into reality in Northern Ireland. The one gift that the province desires above all else - political stability - may finally be attainable.
Sinn Fein, after years of prevarication, has now accepted that it must support policing and shun its paramilitary and criminal links if it is to be accepted as a truly democratic party. And the DUP, for ever the voice of unionist dissent, is running out of reasons to delay power-sharing with republicans much longer.
Provided Sinn Fein gives unequivocal backing to policing at its forthcoming special party conference, the timetable for elections and the resurrection of the Assembly could be back on track. Our richly rewarded politicians may well begin earning their salaries by early summer.
There are certainly plenty of hot issues awaiting locally-elected Ministers when they return to their Stormont desks. In their absence the Treasury has been tightening the economic screw on Northern Ireland and the new year will see higher rates bills for many and the introduction of water charges.
When these new charges are added to rising fuel costs and soaraway house prices, it is evident that the coming year will see many household budgets being increasingly strained. The Government may argue that Northern Ireland is only being asked to pay its way like every other region of the UK, but private sector incomes here are well below the national average and the rising bills will have a significant impact on many people.
Another thorny issue to be resolved is the question of education reform and academic selection. Threats to our grammar schools raise the hackles of the middle-classes. While the performance of our best schools are the envy of the rest of the UK, we also have to recognise that the system continues to fail far too many children, who leave school with few, if any, qualifications and poor literacy and numeracy skills. Retaining the best of the current system and improving the rest is the delicate balancing act awaiting a new Education Minister.
On the wider front, political agreement could transform the province, especially if accompanied by a worthwhile economic package, including a reduction in corporation tax rates. Political stability and reduced taxation would make the task of attracting high-value inward investment easier and Northern Ireland could begin to mirror the economic success of the Republic. Will 2007 be the year when we break the shackles of the past and move forward to a brighter future? The signs are encouraging but only time will tell.