By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
There was quite a revealing and disappointing moment for British secretary of state Peter Hain at the end of last week’s Question Time on the London-based BBC.
Hain was one of five panellists all competing for the post of deputy leader of the Labour Party.
The programme’s host, David Dimbleby, asked each candidate to highlight a cause or project worth noting that one of the other participants were associated with in their political career.
In turn each candidate recalled a distinct piece of legislation or a reform measure they most admired pioneered by one of their competitors.
Quite surprisingly no-one mentioned Peter Hain’s stewardship of the peace process; his involvement in one of the most significant political developments in Ireland for nearly a century - the setting up of a power-sharing administration led by Sinn Féin and the DUP - no-one even referred to it in passing.
The omission was so glaringly obvious that Dimbleby felt obliged to comment on it, more out of embarrassment than conviction, and a blase Peter Hain shrugged his shoulders and said “there you go”.
The issues, worthy of praise from the prospective deputy leaders of the British Labour Party, were domestic and for them Ireland and what happens here is not relevant to domestic British politics.
On Monday Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, told the north’s assembly he was appalled by the off-handed manner in which successive British governments treated the people of the north.
The clear implication of his view is that English politicians care little and know even less about the six counties.
Over the last month Ian Paisley in his role as first minister has said in a number of interviews that he has little time for British politicians, has spoken about his family’s Irish roots in a pre-partitioned Ireland and his willingness to work with the Irish government.
His recent visit to the site of the battle of the Boyne and his son Ian’s trip to Dublin - both at the invitation of the Irish government - are very public signs that a thaw is taking place at a leadership level inside the most obstinate elements of unionism in their attitude to the Irish government.
Not that unionist discrimination has stopped entirely, particularly at the level of council politics in areas like Lisburn.
There is still opposition from unionists to voluntary power-sharing with Sinn Féin. Instead, it would appear unionists prefer to be coerced into power-sharing through equality provisions such as the d’Hondt mechanism, which is used to elect the executive.
Nonetheless there is a new and dynamic situation arising from the existence of the north’s new administration.
There are opportunities for island-wide politics to be made through, for example, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and other all-Ireland bodies such as the Civic Forum and the parliamentary body made up of MLAs and TDs.
Last week’s election of the Irish government and the likelihood of a stable administration for the next five years provide an opportunity for Bertie Ahern to use his last term as taoiseach to take practical steps which will make a contribution to the reunification and independence of this country.
Sinn Féin has long campaigned for a Green Paper to be introduced into the Dail.
Essentially what is needed from the Irish government is a strategy for independence which will harness government resources to that end.
Bertie Ahern should start by ending the absurd and contradictory convention where political matters pertaining to the six counties are handled by his minister for foreign affairs.
He should appoint a government minister and ministry with a specific remit to develop on an all-Ireland basis areas of cooperation between his government and the administration led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
The main challenge facing the north’s administration is economic. One of the first tasks the all-Ireland ministerial council should undertake is to identify where both administrations can work together - harmonising ministries across the island such as education, health, agriculture and transport would save substantial revenue.
These are unprecedented times.
Two new administrations are beginning their parliamentary life cycle together - unprecedented good will exist alongside unprecedented opportunity.
Let us make unprecedented progress.