By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Ireland January 2008 is a much better place than Ireland January 2007. What a difference a year can make in the life of a nation.
This time last year the political future was laden with uncertainty and no shortage of pessimism.
Few politicians or journalists would risk their standing by declaring whether a power-sharing administration involving Sinn Féin and the DUP would be formed in case their utterances came back to haunt them.
If truth be told no-one knew what the early months of last year would bring to the political and peace processes.
At that stage both were showing signs of fatigue after 13 years of stop-start negotiations and the attendant emotional highs and lows.
Crystal ball gazing is a risky business in the midst of a process that seemed to swing forever between an end-game scenario and collapse.
The task whether in January ‘07 or January ‘08 remains the same: to plot a course which takes the people of this country irreversibly out of a centuries-old conflict by creating sustainable institutions based on equality and rooted in an island-wide democratic framework.
2007 will be seen as the year when the north’s political system put its feet on the first rung of the ladder in the climb to a new political dispensation.
2007 was the year when Sinn Féin took a huge decision and critically backed the PSNI, taking yet another step towards achieving the transfer of police and justice powers to the northern executive; a move if properly stewarded should lead to disarming the north’s military state.
It will also be seen as the year when politics on this island began to realign on an all-island axis. The first and welcome sign of this was the decision by Fianna Fail to organise in the six counties.
For Fianna Fail to be successful in the north the SDLP’s future is in considerable doubt. There is no political space on the nationalist side between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, for Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin will not be yielding any ground.
Also it has to be an attractive option to the SDLP, a shrinking party in the face of Sinn Féin, to be subsumed into Fianna Fail - a party that could well be in government in the south for at least the next decade.
It was a memorable year and one I suspect which Gerry Adams, of all the political leaders, will be satisfied with, despite his obvious disappointment at Sinn Féin’s election result in the south.
The year saw a successful breakthrough in a long-term strategy, which he pioneered with Martin McGuinness, to change the political conditions in this country, which were fuelling the armed conflict.
These changed conditions brought new thinking and approaches from the British, Irish and US governments and in turn led to a sea change in the attitude of all the armed organisations, republican, British and unionist.
Out of this emerged last year the new power-sharing administration involving an executive, assembly and all-Ireland ministerial council.
The photographic album records some of the year’s highlights: Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams at their joint, first ever press conference; Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in Stormont’s Great Hall at the launch of the new administration; the meeting of the all-Ireland ministerial council, bringing the executive and Irish government together and Hugh Orde, chief constable of the PSNI, being invited by Gerry Adams to Ballymurphy.
There have been other equally remarkable photo calls mainly provided by the first and deputy first ministers as they set about the work of consolidating the new institutions.
Sad moments also provided photojournalists with unprecedented one-off images; the attendance at David Ervine’s funeral in an east Belfast church in January of Gerry Adams and Alex Maskey.
David Ervine’s sudden death deprived the peace process and loyalists of an able ambassador and republicans also lost an esteemed leader in Martin Meehan who died in November.
The new administration on the hill faces big challenges in the coming year.
Some are conflict related. Others centre on the economy.
Expectations among the people are understandably high.
Can the challenges be met?
With the proper will I think they can.