The Troubles had gone on for so many decades, and the talks had lasted so many years, that, when it came, most hardly knew how to react. So they under-reacted, largely going about their business and getting on with their Christmas shopping. No one can foresee the future, and so no one can say definitively that the Troubles are over. There are extremists on both the republican and loyalist fringes who may yet make bombs that may yet kill people.
But it feels over. It feels as if the Troubles have run their course, as if they had a beginning, a middle and an end, an end which has now been reached. The Troubles took many lives and ruined many others, bringing grief and bitterness on a huge scale. Yet now they feel like a thing of the past, a phase that wreaked havoc but whose destructive force is now largely spent. Its terrible legacies will remain, both in human terms and in the many still-unresolved issues, but the sense is that the worst of it is past.
The new settlement feels right, and much more than this, it feels remarkably stable. It hardly needs to be said that many crises lie ahead, some of them foreseeable and some of which will come out of the blue. The new arrangements will be severely tested in the months to come. But in some as yet unexplained way, politics has ceased to be centrifugal. Most, but not all the forces at work are now propelling politicians towards the centre, away from the old irresponsibility and towards the duty of helping run an administration.
The new arrangements mean very different things to different people. Republicans are still republicans and Unionists are still Unionists, but both accept the new institutions as providing a proper place in which their differences can be thrashed out. One side will be pushing for a united Ireland while the other attempts to cement the union with Britain, but on a day-to-day basis both are now charged with helping govern Northern Ireland in a fair and equitable way.
The exercise of real power already seems to be concentrating minds wonderfully. It was Louis McNeice, a Belfast poet, who once wrote: "I note how a single purpose can be founded on a jumble of opposites." That seems to describe what is beginning to happen.
The new system has been cunningly devised to ensure fairness, with each minister being shadowed by committees headed by figures from other parties. Any attempt to put through discriminatory policies will result in a shrill blowing of whistles and an exacting scrutiny of ministerial motives.
It is in other words a sort of political goldfish bowl where all the parties can, and will, police each other. And, in addition to the committees, the big four parties, two Unionist and two nationalist, are all in the cabinet and can thus watch all the other ministers.
It is a complex structure loaded with checks and balances, and not one designed for speedy decisions. But it is one which will allow maximum scrutiny and accountability. Its architects designed it this way for a very good reason, in that they knew they needed a system which could function without trust.
There will be no need for huge leaps of faith and risky acts of trust, for transparency has been built into the system, together with a sharing- out of power among the major parties. More subtly, it also requires politicians to develop skills of give-and-take, deal-making and building cross-party alliances. These are exactly the political black arts which in the past Belfast has so sadly lacked.
The next big crisis comes early in the millennium, with yet another confrontation on arms de-commissioning looming in January and February. David Trimble has more or less committed himself to pulling out of the whole thing if de-commissioning does not happen, but neither the IRA nor Sinn Fein have promised that it will.
There have been many predictions that IRA de-commissioning will happen, but those who forecast it say privately that it will happen because it must, rather than because of any republican guarantees. A lot of fingers are crossed. Maybe it will or maybe it won't; maybe the IRA will come up with some alternative move so ingenious and so effective that it will meet everyone's requirements in a completely unexpected way.
Whatever happens, there may well be a new year crisis which will rock the system. But it is pretty much beyond belief that the crisis will become a catastrophe which will destroy everything. Just about everyone fervently wants this thing to work, and that includes David Trimble and Martin McGuinness.
While there are certainly some in the Assembly who verge on the venal and are motivated by money and power, nobody really thinks that Trimble and McGuinness are in this camp. Both slogged through decades of the Troubles as tribal warriors and neither has changed affiliation.
But both now think of this new dispensation as a level playing-field where they can grapple with their differences through politics and not by other means. They, therefore, have a common interest in preserving and protecting the system, and the logic of this is that they will find a way to bridge the de-commissioning gap.
It seems almost unreal to report that the sworn enemies of yesterday have so quickly become absorbed in the mundane business of regional development, committee chairmanships and budgetary constraints. But it has happened. When it eventually came about it had been so long signalled, and was preceded by so much tedious wrangling, that the breakthrough seemed more of an anti-climax than a cause for celebration.
Most feel in their bones that the war is over, even though they prefer not to proclaim it in public. When they come to lift a glass on New Year's Eve, however, many will allow themselves the luxury of hoping and believing that the new millennium is about to usher in a new golden age of peace.Reuse content