The fact that Gerry Adams and David Trimble jointly put their names to a single agreement at Easter 1998 was astonishing enough. But today's new reality is more remarkable, precisely because it is so mundane. Martin McGuinness, IRA man turned education minister, has become fluent in the touchy-feely language ("children, our greatest resource...") that is de rigueur in modern politics. The Belfast News Letter rightly noted that this appointment was "something only the most audacious of lampooning scriptwriters could have dreamed up five years ago". Impossibilities have become routine.
The official transfer of legislative power to Stormont yesterday set the seal on the quiet revolution. It remains difficult to imagine Mr McGuinness discussing the future of education and the integration of schools with David Trimble and his Ulster Unionists, let alone with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. But that is the point. It is difficult to imagine; and it will probably happen. Already, Unionists and nationalists alike cautiously acknowledge the problems faced by the other side; that is a crucial change.
Both sides will bellow at each other across the floor, in the months to come. But bellowing replaces bombing; in that sense, indignant outbursts are just what the doctor ordered. Pragmatism has made such huge strides in Northern Ireland that Mr McGuinness may even (yet more unthinkables) come to seem a model of tolerance.
Mr McGuinness will in any case not have unlimited power as education tsar;there is a complex system of checks and balances. In that respect, Ulster politics are now more European than British. Instead of the winner- takes-all politics, each side will have to make compromises and persuade its opponents to do the same.
Persuasion, pragmatism. Roll those words around the tongue, savouring their fabulous new relevance. Gangsters will try to stop the clock; but they can no longer succeed. One day, even the pessimists will have to admit defeat.Reuse content