So 2020 has gone and good riddance to it. It was a time when the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc globally and, of course, we suffered as much as anyone. Loved ones died alone in many instances from the virus and even interments were disrupted by regulations governing the holding of wakes and limiting the numbers who could attend funerals.
We had to coin the phrase ‘new normal’ to describe how life had become abnormal, with every facet of life affected at one stage or other and lives and livelihoods competed in an insoluble equation.
The development of vaccines offers hope that the balance in the fight against Covid has been tipped in the public’s favour and that the pandemic will be beaten in the coming year.
However there will be big challenges for Northern Ireland on other fronts. Today marks the first day in a 12-month celebration of the centenary of the province’s formation.
In the past decade there have been many contentious anniversaries but most have passed off with civility and, in some cases, a greater appreciation of what the people of this island share, as opposed to the obvious differences.
Those differences may be brought into sharper focus in the coming year. Already nationalists and republicans have virtually turned their backs on the centenary. Given how Northern Ireland came into being — enforced partition — and how its very existence has caused thousands of deaths at the hands of those determined to topple the state and those who wish to sustain its union, the divisions in society are understandable if regrettable.
Even the best political brains who created the peace process were unable to square the circle of differing political ideologies.
However the hope must be that as the existence of Northern Ireland is accepted by the majority of people that an imaginative programme of events is held to highlight the successes of this part of the island.
We have had many sporting heroes, inventors, entrepreneurs, academics and industrialists who have brought fame and occasional fortune here and shown the world that we can punch well above our weight in global terms.
What we must avoid is the usual triumphalism or negativity based on circular arguments and whataboutery. People of differing political, religious and social outlooks have made Northern Ireland what it is and their efforts should not be put aside.
Another huge challenge is Brexit. The UK has now left the EU but Northern Ireland, which is often referred to as a place apart, really now deserves that title. It has trade advantages which should be exploited and which could make it an attractive destination for inward investment, but only if politicians stop bickering over symbolism and get serious about realpolitik. Our usual custom of navel gazing and pointing the finger of blame at each other could mean lost opportunities. It matters not that Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. That argument is lost. The challenge is to make what has emerged work for us.
The final, and probably most difficult challenge, is rebuilding the economy after Covid. The UK has run up huge debt to mitigate some of the effects of the pandemic on jobs but that will have to be repaid and a small economy like Northern Ireland which continues to be dominated by the public sector could feel the pinch worst.
Again there will be a huge onus on the political parties to work cohesively to overcome that challenge. The portents are not good as even during the pandemic it was obvious that the two main parties were often putting out differing messages.
Can they agree, for instance, on the huge rebuilding job required for the NHS. Covid has shown — and may still bare its teeth even more savagely in the coming weeks — that it functions only by the herculean efforts of its staff but is grossly understaffed and underfunded.
There should be no room for partisan politics but the First and Deputy First Ministers could not even put out a joint Christmas message. Asking them to work more closely together is a request made more in hope than expectation. We await being very pleasantly surprised in the months ahead.