Leading article: The year a nation drank from the healing well


Northern Ireland has so often been a source of negativity that it is well worth reminding ourselves that in 2007 it proved a source of huge good cheer. In the course of the year it successfully underwent, in the words of its poet Seamus Heaney, its "great sea-change on the far side of revenge". While its dreary conflict once seemed fated to stretch on for ever, last year saw the virtual disappearance of illegal republican activity and a steep decline in the loyalist variety. In 1998, the year of the Omagh bombing, there were almost 60 people killed. In 2007 there were three or four.

There are still dissidents out there, and plenty of criminal gangs, but the big battalions have fallen silent. Nearly all of them finally got the message that victory was not possible, but that a middle way need not mean defeat for any section. It took a few decades for that realisation to dawn: the hope must be that those embroiled in other conflicts will come to see that more quickly than did Belfast. Very creative people from Belfast, Londonderry, Dublin and the US were involved as political midwives to the peace settlement.

A number of individuals can take quiet but immense satisfaction that they helped nudge Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness into a new political dispensation. Both republicans and unionists had publicly forecast that if the heads of the directly opposed traditions ever did go into government together it would be "a battle a day". That was certainly the general expectation. But instead it has been a chuckle a day.

Confrontational rhetoric has been replaced by an extraordinary level of cooperation and efficiency: Belfast's all-party executive has considered 105 items of business, and reached full consensus on all but three of them.

Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness have run the show in the most amicable and even jovial manner, nipping over to see George Bush together, occupying a sofa at the opening of Belfast's enormous new Ikea store, joking and joshing as though they had never been sworn enemies.

It is difficult to know which is the more astonishing: that they work together, or that they work together with such bonhomie. It was supposed to be sullen, but instead it is neighbourly. The trick they use is to agree to differ. Martin McGuinness wants an Ireland which is united, socialist and republican; Ian Paisley wants an Ulster which is British, monarchist, and which will never form part of a united Ireland.

But such matters are prudently excluded from the Belfast executive's agenda. Instead, they and their ministers get on with the everyday business of government: two traditions which lived through decades of conflict have jointly decided not to press disagreements to the point of discord.

The pact to leave the future to look after itself has so far successfully provided stable government. We do not yet know whether the two traditions sat down and hammered all this out explicitly. But however they reached the present understanding, it works.

Such a honeymoon cannot last forever, since divisive issues are bound to arise: for one thing, as the Omagh bombing case has just demonstrated, there will be many reminders of the bad old days. Yet the two sides are determined to keep this settlement going, both believing it provides a level playing field for the business of politics.

After all the bitter, brutal years, something ingenious and creative has emerged: a distinctively Belfast formula for a constructive impasse. Once again Heaney put it best in prophesying that the near-impossible was actually achievable: "Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells."

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