By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Further evidence of the ongoing transformation of Irish politics as a result of the peace process was again on display this week.
On Monday the British-Irish Council (BIC) met and on Tuesday the all-Ireland ministerial council (AIMC) met. Both councils have been meeting but without the north’s politicians. They are now in session following the restoration of the power-sharing government in May.
Of the two meetings the most important and significant for the people of this country is the AIMC.
The BIC is not insignificant. Its meetings will allow for practical exchanges between elected ministers in the north’s executive and ministers particularly in the Scottish and Welsh executives.
From an Irish nationalist perspective developing links with other elected nationalists in Scotland and Wales will assist the overall argument for Irish independence.
But it is the all-Ireland ministerial council if developed to its full potential which holds the most promise and which has far-reaching implications for the people of this island.
At Tuesday’s meeting the elected representatives of more than five million people on this island pledged themselves to work for the mutual benefit of everyone living here.
In normal circumstances such a commitment from politicians would be expected and routine.
The difference here - and it is noteworthy - is that Ian Paisley, First Minister and leader of the DUP affirmed that commitment on behalf of his party; a party hitherto trenchantly opposed to an all-Ireland dispensation.
This endorsement is an extension of the commitments already made by Mr Paisley which saw him elected first minister with Martin
McGuinness as deputy first minister in the first power-sharing administration led by Sinn Féin and the DUP.
The political emphasis and focus of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is to develop novel institutions which suit the needs of the people of this country - a people emerging from conflict rooted in centuries of injustice and inequality.
The institutional expression of those needs is to be found primarily in the AIMC, the north’s executive and assembly.
In reality and in practice it is the decisions made in these bodies which are most relevant to the lives of the people on this island, nationalist and unionist.
These institutions are interlocked and interdependent. They are anchored in the people’s will as expressed in the 1998 all-Ireland referendum when the GFA was overwhelmingly endorsed and in May’s elections, north and south.
While it is early days to be making any firm predictions about the north’s administration surviving its full four-year term the early signs are good.
There are clearly tensions among some leadership figures in the DUP. Their participation in a power-sharing equality-based government with Sinn Féin is testing them.
But the public leadership Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness are giving in their working relationship is sending a powerful message of change and expectation to all the people of this country, especially to unionists and loyalists.
The televised scenes from Tuesday’s AIMC meeting and the comments from Mr McGuinness and Mr Paisley are among the boldest in recent times. Their stance is generating a popular hopeful mood.
The AIMC must use this optimism to accelerate cooperation across the island. The areas agreed for all-Ireland cooperation and where work has already been done by the Irish and British governments are: agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism, transport and trade.
Foras na Gaeilge is helping to promote the Irish language and the Ulster Scots Agency Ulster Scots.
Progress has already been made to assist cross-border workers, to regulate mobile phone costs and increase road safety.
Work is underway to develop the fishing and marine sector and assist rural and urban communities. Tuesday’s decisions will complement this work.
These are practical examples of island-wide collaboration.
It is a small beginning. Much more needs to be and can be done in a planned and coordinated way.
Partition was a monumental failure politically and economically for the nationalist and unionist people of Ireland.
There is now an opportunity under the guidance of the AIMC to extend the success of the south’s economy northwards to build a prosperous national economy to meet the needs of nationalists and unionists in 21st century Ireland.