Chance to put politics of partition behind us

By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)

It is a deal in waiting and what a deal it could be. The possibility of a new agreed Ireland waiting to be born.

At its core Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness First and Deputy First Ministers - an amazing possibility; a functioning all-Ireland ministerial council, northern executive, assembly, east-west structure and republicans supporting new policing arrangements - an equally amazing possibility.

It could be a Nelson Mandela-de Klerk moment waiting ratification; an Arafat-Rabin moment on the Whitehouse lawn with much better prospects.

It could be a moment when the planter and Gael cross over the Rubicon together. A moment when 400 years of conflict and division between Planter and Gael recede to allow in a potentially fresh vista.

It was the rarest of moments which made the hair bristle on a friend’s neck when he heard the startling news that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could hold the joint and equal post of First and Deputy First Minster of the north in a few weeks’ time.

It was a moment greeted with disbelief as the news spread across Ireland - a moment which caught everyone off guard; a moment which brought hope and optimism back into a peace process laden with despair and disappointment; a moment which injected excitement back into politics here; a moment when people began to talk again about the future.

A moment patiently waited on since the IRA called their first cessation in August 1994.

A potentially generous moment which can move beyond the printed word of the St Andrews proposals and enter every home in Ireland with the message that we are on the threshold of a new beginning.

The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews proposals could give the people of this island an opportunity to put the politics of partition behind them.

They are testament to the failure of partition. Partition left nationalists stateless, in a bleak wilderness of cultural, economic and political destitution. It left unionists in isolation precariously balanced on the edge of the Irish and British nations living in fear from nationalists, forever suspicious of British government intentions, clinging onto power only with the support of Britain’s military garrison shoring up an apartheid system.

The potential and hope of the moment is totally dependent on the response of the DUP to the two government’s proposals.

We can leave the failures of the past behind us if the DUP stand by what they said at St Andrews and if republicans can once again display the leadership, which in the words of Gerry Adams last Sunday, they have demonstrated “again and again and again” in their commitment to the peace process.

In these circumstances St Andrews could prove to be a turning point for the most recalcitrant element of unionism in the same way that the Good Friday agreement signalled a shift by more realistic unionists.

We are all in unchartered waters. Politics on this island has never been at this point before. Republicans and unionists have never had to consider what they are now considering.

What the governments agreed at St Andrews may yet propel politics forward dramatically.

And while republicans are understandably cautious and fearful about the situation unravelling because of Ian Paisley’s volatility - as evidenced by the contrived row over a ministerial pledge on Tuesday - we also need to recognise that any decision by him to occupy a joint ‘prime ministerial office’ with Martin McGuinness would truly be a monumental and unprecedented breakthrough for the peace process.

It is of course a huge gesture by republicans to share power with the DUP given that party’s track record.

However, there is now an opportunity to breathe new life into the political and peace process.

The political space for initiatives seems to be opening up again.

Loyalists, especially the UVF, appear keen to play their part in encouraging loyalists to accept the Good Friday Agreement.

This will help stabilise a very important constituency.

We may well have reached the point where the centuries of conflict and division can finally be put behind us.

That is the challenge facing us all but given their rejectionist history it is a challenge most particularly faced by the DUP and their leader Ian Paisley.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News