A fresh start for people in North
The slow, tortuous process of securing agreement between Northern Ireland's dominant political parties finally reached a conclusion last week with the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. At long last a date has been set for the transfer of policing and justice powers back to Northern Ireland -- and, more importantly, it comes in a deal that was negotiated in the North by its own political leaders.
There was outside pressure, but no outside imposition: Peter Robinson's DUP and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein have come together with their eyes wide open. It is their agreement, and it is their duty to sell it to their own people and to implement it without delay or further rancour. Mr Robinson will have the harder job, as he faces scepticism in his party and in some segments of his political followers. His own leadership of the DUP is also far from secure following the recent revelations about his wife's financial dealings and infidelities. Those difficulties cannot detract, however, from the leadership which he showed during the negotiations. Against the odds, and against expectations, Mr Robinson brought a unanimous parliamentary party to the agreement.
According to Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, the Hillsborough accord "is the last chapter of a long and troubled story and the beginning of a new chapter after decades of violence, years of talks, weeks of stalemate". That is what everyone hopes, but it is likely that there will be more hurdles to be overcome before the April 12 deadline for the transfer of powers has been reached.
It is unfortunate that Reg Empey and the Ulster Unionist Party have chosen to sulk, a tactic that could backfire on a party that has already suffered a speedy fall from power and influence. Its decision to oppose the mooted appointment of David Ford of the Alliance Party to the new position of justice minister is similarly misplaced.
What can be said with certainty is that politics -- however frustrating, however petty and however slow -- has finally triumphed over violence. There will be no return to the dark days of the last century when Irishmen murdered Irishmen in their thousands and thousands. The terrorists have been defeated, even if a few still lurk on the fringes of both communities.
For the people of Northern Ireland, the agreement represents a long overdue conclusion to a process that has distracted their political leaders from the economic crisis. Public frustration with the slowness of the political progress was heightened by the deepening recession: they want their leaders to get on with the job of running Northern Ireland, tackling recession and encouraging inward investment. Hillsborough, and the renewed American enthusiasm for the North that it has already brought, allows the politicians to focus their energies on the issues that really matter to the people who elected them.
Mr Robinson was correct when he said that "no future generation would forgive us for squandering the peace that has been so long fought for. Today's agreement is a sure sign that there will be no going back to the past. I believe that we have taken a considerable step to secure the prize of a stable and peaceful Northern Ireland". But future generations will be equally unforgiving if Northern Ireland's economy is allowed to slump into a deeper recession from which the recovery will be slow and painful.
Hillsborough is not the end of Northern Ireland's painful transition to normality, but neither is it a "staging post" on the road to Irish unity. The future will be peaceful, and that peace can only come from mutual trust and respect. As Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's deputy first minister, said: "I believe in a united Ireland and they (unionists) want to maintain the union with England. This should not mean that we are incapable of respecting one another, of treating one another as equals and proceeding on the basis of partnership, respect, fairness and equality." Last week was a good start.