Finally on a path towards a new Ireland

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

Normally 100 days is the benchmark used by political pundits to assess the performance of a new political administration.

In the case of the DUP/Sinn Fein-led power-sharing executive at Stormont it was the arrival of the six-month anniversary last week that induced the scribes to put pen to paper to examine the performance of the administration.

Six months is a more sensible timeframe than 100 days to conduct an overview although it would be fairer to the politicians and more realistic to carry out such an analysis on the completion of the administration’s first four-year term.

Perhaps the most pertinent observation to make at this six-month juncture is the very existence of the new political dispensation itself.

Prior to May’s assembly election there were few people prepared to risk their reputation as serious commentators to call it one way or the other that a DUP/Sinn Fein-led administration would take shape or last beyond a few weeks.

That outcome was, of course, determined decisively by the electorate as they bestowed their authority on the leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP to form a power-sharing government.

The electoral intentions among nationalists and unionists were shifting away from the SDLP towards Sinn Fein and from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP for quite some time prior to May.

The decisive shift in May’s poll in both directions confirmed this underlying pattern.

The motivation for the shifts appeared on the surface to be driven by contradictory aspirations.

On the one hand the DUP message to unionists was traditional and uncompromising, while Sinn Fein offered compromise with an equality and rights-based, all-Ireland emphasis in its manifesto.

Back then the two positions seemed irreconcilable.

However, republicans had limited the grounds on which the DUP could legitimately refuse to form an administration.

The IRA’s decision to end its armed struggle and put its arms beyond use and Sinn Fein’s decision to critically support the PSNI had removed the main arguments from the DUP for not entering into a government with Sinn Fein, the lead nationalist party.

The DUP was also being squeezed from another direction - failure to form a power-sharing executive would result in the British and Irish governments jointly governing the six counties.

Under these pressures the DUP had little wriggle room.

That was then. Today, six months later, there is a different and more optimistic set of circumstances to comment on.

The style of leadership that Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister have brought to their respective offices has left people amazed at their friendly working relationship.

This relationship is crucial to the smooth running of all elements of the power-sharing experience - the all-Ireland ministerial council, the executive and assembly.

There is a marked difference between the administration led by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon and that of the current holders of these offices.

The Trimble/Mallon administration was undoubtedly a landmark in the peace process but it was an era seemingly beset with difficulties and personality disputes.

The lack of personal chemistry between Mallon and Trimble sent out the wrong message to a community looking for public signals from their political leaderships that things could or would change.

That accusation could not be levelled at the door of the current first and deputy first ministers.

The leadership they have shown in their dealings with each other is precisely the qualities a society and people emerging from a conflict need to see.

The psychology around the two leaders of this unprecedented power-sharing government is encouraging the people of this nation to believe after centuries of conflict we are finally on a path towards a new Ireland.

There is also a marked difference in the way local ministers handle local issues compared with direct-rule ministers.

This was obvious during the severe floods, the foot-and-mouth scare, the approach to water charges and more recently the proposed budget with its commitment to equality, fairness and job creation.

There have been disappointments - for example, the DUP’s refusal to introduce an Irish language act.

However, for a new administration on a learning curve its six months in office has been surprisingly impressive.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News