Some voices you never forget. I was waking to a grey Belfast dawn when the phone rang. "What about ya?" said the man at the other end of the line. "Are ya fit for breakfast?" It was my friend Ken Kelly. It had been who knows how many years since I last contacted him. But Ken is not a man to gripe about tardiness in matters of communication. Ken Kelly was my first Protestant. Or should I say he was the first Northern Irish Protestant with whom I became friends.
That was back in the early 1980s when the Troubles were still a going concern and I decided to head north to be a reporter in Belfast. As a southerner I knew next to nothing about the place to which my own republic laid claim. What I did know was a mush of stereotype and misunderstanding. Ken was the first person to help to put me straight on a whole lot of things.
Protestants were not aliens from outer space. Unionists had some legitimate arguments to make. Not every prod wore a bowler hat and loathed Catholics. In those days Ken was a taxi driver and he ferried me across the province to cover murders, bombings and strikes. During one of the last - a loyalist day of action against the Anglo-Irish Agreement - we drove to Portadown, the heartland of anti-Catholic bigotry and a dodgy place for a southerner to be wielding a microphone.
Ken talked his way past numerous barricades in one of the tough estates outside the town. At the last we were told to park the car and get out. A fat lout who was swigging from a can of lager wandered over. "Where are youse from?" he growled. Ken was about to answer but I, foolishly, got there before him. "From RTE. We just want to get your side of the story." "RT fucking E?!?" the lout exploded.
It then dawned on me that saying I was from the republic's national broadcasting service was a little unwise.
"You see, you and your priests," he screamed. "Ye should all be put on a fucking bonfire and burned alive."
It was at this incendiary point that maestro Ken became involved. He placed his formidable bulk between me and the would-be pyromaniac. I saw his large hand pulling the youth's head towards him. There was some fierce whispering. The boy backed away, scowling but mysteriously deflated. To this day I have no idea what was said but we were allowed on our way without trouble.
I know Ken enjoyed our trips. He certainly didn't do the work for the money. At any moment during the rioting his car could have been taken and set on fire. Not to mention getting a beating from one of the self-proclaimed Green or Orange defenders of the community.
Ken had a sense of adventure. But I know there was another motive: it came from the part of him that rejected the idea of any imposed identity. To be an Ulster Protestant did not mean buying into a package of die-hard loyalism or sectarian bigotry. He wanted to know about the rest of the island on which he lived. So he went on holidays to the south. He studied online at a southern university and had friends from the south. None of this made him a sell-out or a traitor to his Protestant heritage. Ken knew where he came from and was comfortable with who he was. When we talked politics it was usually with a common feeling of despair for the vicious stalemate of those days. But how things change.
When I met Ken for breakfast the other day the local radio news was reporting that loyalists (representatives of the Protestant paramilitary groups) were in Dublin for talks with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. In two days' time the Reverend Ian Paisley would be heading in the same direction. (Afterwards a statement was issued calling the meeting "constructive".)
The current suspension of the power-sharing government and the rise of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have led some to conclude that the peace process is fatally damaged. They couldn't be more wrong. Sinn Fein and the DUP are often referred to as representing the more "hardline" elements of the nationalist and unionist electorate. Forget that. Once you sit at the same table and implicitly accept each other's presence, any pretence of being truly "hardline" goes out the window.
Ian Paisley said that sitting in the same room as Sinn Fein earlier this week was "only to please the governments, to let them say they got everyone in the same room". For the man who so often shouted "Ulster Says No", to acquiesce in pleasing those two governments was a moment of significance that cannot have escaped the DUP leader.
A large dose of perspective is needed here. On the evening before Ken telephoned, I met an old colleague from BBC Northern Ireland for a coffee. Barney Rowan is the security correspondent and has an intricate knowledge of the talks that gave Ulster its current peace. I told him I'd been astonished by the building boom in the city centre and the relaxed atmosphere of the place. It was light years away from the grim metropolis I'd left in 1990.
As we talked he reminded me of a late night when we'd travelled to a remote community on the shores of Lough Neagh. There had been a gun attack on a bar and several people had died. The image seared into my memory, and his, was of a man washing the blood from the floor, squeezing the cloth into a basin and then throwing the water into a ditch. That was the past all right. Blood in the night and hope murdered.
I know that Northern Ireland will not go back to that place. I believe the IRA will maintain its ceasefire and that loyalist paramilitaries will do the same. Just the other day the Ulster Volunteer Force sacked one of its commanders following a series of racist attacks against Pakistani and Chinese families in his area. The UVF were forced to act because the people of Belfast took to the streets and protested. Such a response would have been unimaginable in the bad old days.
In this new atmosphere, those who have followed the constitutional path ask again what is the point of the IRA, UDA and UVF? For them the answer is that there is no point. All that remains is a militaristic pride - the belief that disbandment means surrender - and the need to maintain the lucrative rackets built up during the 30 years of the Troubles. Any claims to be defending their respective communities from attack are specious. The war is over.
The great thing about Northern Ireland was the amount of decency that survived in spite of the hatred. For me it found expression in the friendships of people like Ken Kellyfrom both sides of the community. I should say that my friends never bought the idea of coming from "both sides of the community". People like Ken wanted a space where you didn't talk about "sides", where you weren't defined by anybody else's idea of who you were.
Naive? Simplistic? Not at all. History is moving to a place where there will be opposing politics but where, eventually I am sure, there will not be "sides" which hate for reasons of identity. The gloom-mongers who see in the stalling of the assembly a looming catastrophe are wrong. I came back from Belfast feeling cheered. Thank you, Ken, and the many like you.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content