In one of his inimitable columns many years ago in the Irish Press, Brendan Behan described coming out of his house one morning to find a gang of Corporation workers, celebratory pints in hand, dancing round a hole in the road. They were, he was told, celebrating the seventh birthday of the hole. Behan was not only poking gentle fun at the tardy pace of public works in his native city, but, more savagely, satirising the Irish propensity to memorialise almost anything with a ritual anniversary.
I am reminded of these strictures by the constant rush to memorialise the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (the people who prefer to call it the Belfast Agreement are not so prominent in the jollifications) as if it were all done and dusted. Significantly, too, the main party now in government, not having been a party to the Agreement, is left sulking in an outer chamber.
Whether it is in the form of Jonathan Powell's memoir, drawing back some of the veils to the acute discomfiture of both the DUP and Sinn Fein, or the increasingly numerous less significant players, each claiming patent rights on the process as they peddle their nostrums round the trouble spots of the world, all carry some risk to what has been achieved, and to the potential for further movement.
This is in no way meant to disparage the Agreement and the courage, tenacity and skill of those who made it. It was an enormous achievement, marked by the saving of innumerable lives, the ending of a murderous conflict, the improvement in the quality of life, the progressive normalisation of social and political relationships, booming tourism and a new economic optimism. But it is still a work in progress. The Agreement represents less the end of conflict, than the beginning of reconciliation. Jonathan Powell was a towering figure in all these negotiations and his revealing memoir describes 10 years post-Agreement of hard slogging, of false dawns and disappointed hopes, and the heroic efforts of retrieval required to get the parties together in an administration which shows some prospects of sticking together.
Even that is at risk. The current tensions arise from the pending change in leadership in the DUP, and the necessity for those seeking the succession not to be outbid in any test of loyalty to party dogma. They also involve Sinn Fein's requirement that responsibility for justice and policing would be transferred before May 7, as they were given to believe had been settled at St Andrews.
Sinn Fein needs these powers to be devolved, not only because they represent the last piece of the Patten jigsaw, but because it was a main element in the bill of sale on which they persuaded republicans to buy into support for policing.
For Patten, it was a defining function of government, and a manifest of the commitment of parties to defend the institutions and the common good, that they should exercise these powers. For Sinn Fein and republicans, it is symbolically important that these powers should be exercised by local politicians responsible to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Without that, the Sinn Fein leadership would not have got agreement, and failure to deliver will seriously damage their credibility.
The DUP claim not to have been a party to any such agreement at St Andrews and maintain that there will be no transfer until their constituency is fully satisfied about republican bona fides (for some this will be never) and an end to paramilitary structures.
The failure of the DUP to recognise the importance of this issue for Sinn Fein, and the disparaging and provocative language used by Nigel Dodds in dismissing it, is symptomatic of a wider problem -- the failure of both parties to conduct their internal debate in ways which do not cause problems for their partners in government.
Signs are that the transfer will not take place by the May date, but it should not be long delayed. Before that, the Army Council (now without army, arms or any clear purpose) should segue into an old comrades association, or a felons' club, or whatever, and another IIMC report should confirm a final farewell to arms and the tolerance of criminality.
It is in this context that the remarks by the President, in making a royal visit to Dublin conditional on the transfer of policing powers, all the more surprising. Whatever the constitutional propriety (and this is debatable), it was politically gauche to enter such sensitive territory in a way which is almost guaranteed to increase unionist opposition to the transfer.
Moderate unionists are offended by what they see as an attempt to involve the monarch in political controversy, while hardliners in the DUP are given the excuse to huff that they will not be bullied into acquiescence.
Meantime, too, in the wake of the brutal murder of Mr McGreevy, West Belfast, and the wider society, is crying out for just the sort of joined-up community policing which is at the heart of Patten. This would involve the police, local politicians, the community and all the statutory and voluntary social support agencies, in a combined assault on crime which would remove the bullies and provide protection and security for the elderly, for children and for the vulnerable in society, and a quieter life for all.
If they can crack that, they will have something to export -- and to Dublin too.