There are many reasons to be cheerful about Ulster

`There has been a wholesale shift of an ideology from armed militancy to engagement in politics'
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The Independent Culture
ON MONDAY I was watching Martin McGuinness say "I do" and accept the new Northern Ireland education portfolio, when - before I could stop him - out skipped my internal Fotherington Thomas again: "Hullo trees, hullo sky, hullo Sir Reg Empey, hullo lasting peace in Ireland," my curly, blond alter ego lisped, enraptured. "Did you ever see such a lovely day?"

This was dangerous. It is always wiser and safer to be Molesworth, the cynical, rebellious schoolboy creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, than to be the foppish optimist whom he castigates as "uterly wet and a weed". And part of a journalist's role is to search diligently for the dark cloud that wraps around the silver lining.

But the prospect of McGuinness as an education minister is just too extraordinary to be dismissed in a flurry of provisos and caveats. By the end of this week, the former member of the IRA Army Council - a council under whose tutelage large parts of Ulster were blown up - will be visiting schools and inspecting their facilities and their teaching. Without a doubt, he will then suggest that someone (presumably the British Government) should be putting more money into education.

Over at Health his colleague, Bairbre de Brun, will be doing the same. In three months' time, if things go according to plan, they will both begin to sound like the Liberal Democrat leaders of the Isle of Wight Council.

Of course, there are problems to be dealt with between then and now. There was a marked lack of triumphalism on the part of the British and Irish governments, with Mr Mandelson keeping remarkably quiet, given the scale of the achievement. The Unionists have imposed another deadline that will not quite be met, and we shall have to see whether what has been accomplished by then is going to be sufficient to keep Mr Trimble engaged.

But still. I mean. Think about it. On Tuesday morning Gerry Kelly, the Old Bailey bomber and flint-faced negotiator for Sinn Fein - the man who is reputed to have had the strongest influence in moving the wielders of guns towards democratic politics - was asked about the McGuinness policies for education. What would smiley Martin bring to the task?

"He would," said Kelly, in his basso profundo, his vocal cords steely with seriousness, "bring a republican analysis to it." And what might that mean? Kelly clanged on about 80 years of discrimination; which is true, but has little to do with running Ulster's schools. Schools are about teaching, curricula, buildings, qualifications, music classes, technology, PTAs, good and bad heads. Only 0.000001 per cent is about whether Wolfe Tone was a better man than Edward Carson. Kelly was making the ritual obeisance to the history of his movement; it was about as convincing as Gerry Adams's Gaelic or my Xhosa.

On the one substantive point, that of segregated education, McGuinness (ever a good Catholic) had already - the night before - expressed himself in favour of keeping denominational schools, as a matter of parental choice. It will be interesting to see what some of the secular apologists for Sinn Fein over here make of all that.

These mild words also help us to forget the scale of what has happened - the wholesale shift of an ideology from armed militancy to engagement in politics and administration. It is as though Attila the Hun had one day repudiated all that ravaging, and instead devoted himself to administering colleges for the education of the young ladies of Dark Ages Europe. Except that, of course, he was still going to do it from a distinctively Hunnic perspective.

It's true that Sinn Fein has been talking about issues such as education for more than a decade now, ever since the movement towards community politics began in the mid-Eighties. But this is different. The alacrity with which the party swooped on the two totemic popular portfolios - spurned by both brands of Unionism and the SDLP - suggested an understanding of modern politics that some of their rivals seem to have lost. The brighter ones must be wondering just how much might always have been achieved by intelligent campaigning, rather than by slinking up next to policemen and women and blowing their brains out at short range.

The goodwill is there to match the politicians' new resolve. I liked the comments of the chairman of the Ulster Pork and Bacon Forum, the splendidly named Robert Overend, who said that his association didn't care what the political affiliation of the agriculture minister was. He went on, "There is no division between the farming community. We're all suffering equally. It doesn't matter which political party we aspire to."

And that's not the only good thing that emerges from this week. The d'Hondt system, by which the parties divvied up the jobs, should have been incomprehensible to everyone in Northern Ireland, if the critics of PR are to be believed. Whenever a change to our voting system is mooted, the complaint is made that British voters aren't clever or patient enough to understand it. Single Transferable Vote is presented as a continental abstraction; a product of an over-theoretical civilisation. Through several elections, and now in this last process, the people of Northern Ireland have demonstrated that this is self-serving nonsense.

The third positive factor of the week was how nearly everyone involved abjured populism. Playing to the gallery, to your own tribe's exclusivist instincts, or the casual prejudices of the electorate, is almost always an abdication of political integrity - whether it's performed by a Tory imprisoner, a Labour banner or a Nationalist blamer. They know life isn't like that, but it suits them to pretend that it is. During the last week, the absence of that routine idiocy has been rather wonderful.

And finally, if they can do it, why cannot we? I understand why some activists feel it necessary to define themselves by who they are not. But to most mainland voters it would have seemed perfectly sensible, in May 1997 or subsequently, for Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell to have been offered cabinet posts. An internal counter-balance to the nervous authoritarianism of Labour might have been more effective than the shrill and inconsistent opposition of the Liberal Democrats now.

But no, says the Pendle Labour MP Gordon Prentice this week, when the contents of Paddy's diaries are leaked. "There would have been a nuclear reaction within the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party outside," he hyperventilated. "If the Liberal Democrats are so enamoured with this Labour Government they can tear up their party cards and join us, but they don't because they're a separate political party." They could do with Mr Prentice in Northern Ireland, just to remind them of their history.

Party, schmarty. Is the "Labour" view of education as distinct from the "Liberal" one, as the "republican" is from the "progressive Unionist"? I doubt it. "Hullo trees," says Fotherington Thomas, "Hullo sky. Hullo changing political world." Even Molesworth might risk a smile, if he hadn't a reputation to live down to.