By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
The photograph of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting side by side at last week’s press conference was instantaneously flashed around the world. Due to the technological age we live in people all over the globe were able to share in and witness this watershed and joyful moment in our history as we experienced it.
This was particularly important for the millions of Irish people living in Britain, the US and Australia - the Irish Diaspora - descendants of reluctant emigrants forced to flee from here due to the impact of Britain’s colonial policy over the last 150 years.
The photo and the event was the main item on news outlets across the US, Britain and Australia.
A republican on holiday in Spain told me the photo was on the front page of every major European paper in the newsagents. Another republican holidaying in Cuba said it was the main headlines there.
The Adams-Paisley press conference was shown alongside film footage of the famous handshake between the then Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the company of former US president Bill Clinton on the White House lawn and the first recorded public meeting between Nelson Mandela and the then South African president F W de Klerk.
This response was not just because it was a good news story out of a country long associated with bad news; media editors knew the significance of the occasion.
Like us they knew something quite profound was taking place.
They afforded the event the status it duly deserved by ranking it as the lead item.
Although a long time coming, the Paisley-Adams public rapprochement affirmed the value and the durability of the Irish peace process.
It confounded the closest observers. Few journalists or politicians predicted it beforehand.
There is no doubt people living in countries riven with conflict were inspired by what they saw on their television screens as we were when we saw the images of Arafat and Rabin and Mandela and de Klerk.
There is also no doubt the people of this country are once again filled with hope and expectation.
The many false dawns generated by previous initiatives had instilled in people ‘peace process fatigue’ and despondency.
Now, however, the public’s psychology is being shaped with words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘challenge’ and daily news reports about the extensive and positive meetings between Paisley and Martin Mc Guinness, the DUP, SDLP and UUP.
While the main focus of the media and people’s attention is politicians preparing to participate in the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, the executive and assembly, we must realise the opportunity we now have for a serious process of national reconciliation.
The symbolic importance in the minds of the unionist people of Paisley and Adams being filmed together and the DUP working with Sinn Fein is powerful.
The unthinkable, indeed unbelievable is happening before our very eyes.
The barriers that are in the minds of the unionist people about republicans and nationalists can now come down. The mental and actual doors that were closed to republicans can now open.
The siege mentality behind which unionists fortified themselves and lived their lives can now be lifted.
The unionist people’s uncertainty of their place in this country can now find surety.
Paisley’s remarks in the British House of Commons describing developments here as being good for the people of the island of Ireland are another hopeful sign.
The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, in particular the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, have a vital role to play in rooting the unionist people in an Ireland setting.
Unionists, nationalists, republicans and loyalists working these institutions will create a new political culture on this island.
The discourse among us will be about what happens here not on the neighbouring island.
There should be no frontiers between us.
The working class, unionist and nationalist, can now find common purpose.
It is a pity David Ervine did not live to see these days.
It is also sad at this great moment in time in our country that Emma Groves, an enduring symbol of the hurt, fortitude and human dignity of the Irish people, should pass away.
My thoughts and those of many others will be with her family.