David McKittrick: Triumph of this new Anglo-Irish alliance

Nationalist Ireland admires Tony Blair because he has removed the condescension

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Saturday's rugby spectacular at Croke Park, so filled with passion and emotion, so successful in exorcising historical ghosts, will be followed next week in Northern Ireland by a more mundane event: elections. These are not going to generate the same exhilarating feelings, but the signs are that they will complement Croke Park's phenomenal symbolism by providing a vital new political infrastructure.

The crucial factor linking the rugby and the elections is the state of Anglo-Irish relations, and the exceptional sense of partnership developed between London and Dublin in the past decade. There was a time when this relationship was problematic, marked by megaphone diplomacy, ill-feeling and recurring crises. Now it is running more smoothly than at any time for a century and more.

Most explanations for the willingness of the Gaelic game to share Croke Park with rugby and soccer concentrated on the Celtic Tiger's production of cosmopolitan self-confidence and new national maturity. These are indeed important factors, yet the politics was also crucial. Without the remarkable improvement in Anglo-Irish affairs Saturday's match would not have happened; and the coming election would not be taking place.

Few allude to this openly, but much of the credit for it is given to Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern. They came to power within weeks of each other in 1997, and have worked closely together ever since. Nationalist Ireland admires Tony Blair because he has removed all sense of the condescension which the Irish frequently complained they used to detect in the Conservative Party. The old accusation that Britain was imperialist and colonial is now regarded as risible.

The Blair-Ahern joint stewardship of the peace process has set an unprecedented example of sustained co-operation. As the distinguished Dublin journalist James Downey puts it: "There is a sense of partnership and a sense of achievement - there is no doubt about it, it has been a golden age for Anglo-Irish relations."

Of course, not all the difficult issues have gone away. The question of collusion between elements of the security forces and loyalist assassins, for example, will haunt the scene for years to come, one of many historical hangovers.

But with the management of the Troubles established as a joint venture, the rest of the picture has been gradually slotting into place. Unionist Ulster harbours more suspicions about the peace process as piloted by the two prime ministers, but usually grudgingly comes round to accepting its progress.

The death toll has dwindled: last year there were only three Troubles-related deaths, which means that gun crime is today a much more serious problem in London and Dublin than in Belfast. But the reduction in violence needs to be underpinned by a durable political settlement, which is where the election comes in. It will choose a new Belfast Assembly which will in turn be charged with putting together a power-sharing government. That means bringing Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness together as First and Deputy First Minister in a new administration, an idea which once seemed absurd but which now looks far more likely than not. Paisley and Sinn Fein are now the largest parties. Most observers think they will be larger still after the election, gaining seats from more moderate rivals.

Sinn Fein is eager to get into government, and recently took the enormous step of supporting policing institutions to facilitate it happening. Paisley has not formally agreed to share power, but all the indications are that he is keen on office. The weeks ahead may produce the novel spectacle of fissures within his normally monolithic party; some of his most important MPs have made it plain they do not share his new appetite for a deal.

And while his vote has surged ahead in recent times, he could face the problem of a lower turnout. This may be caused by the fact that some of the faithful may stay home, confused by his new willingness to share power with McGuinness.

The formation of a new government is not a formality, for there will be weeks of hard-edged post-election negotiation. There is no guarantee that an executive will be formed before the Blair-Ahern deadline of 26 March. But the prime ministers will be pushing hard to achieve a breakthrough, Blair because he will be retiring this year, Ahern because he has a tight election to fight before the summer.

The construction of a new government will be an urgent inter-governmental priority. Bringing it into existence will not be as exhilarating as the stirring epic in Croke Park but will be an important stage in creating a new dispensation in Ireland.

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