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Saturday, 2 December, 2000, 01:55 GMT
Devolution's turbulent year
By BBC Ireland Correspondent David Eades
It was one of the more extraordinary sights in Northern Ireland's modern history.
A "family photo" embracing David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Seamus Mallon and a handful of other new ministers -all sitting nervously around the executive's table on the day devolution was launched exactly one year ago.
The sense of uncertainty was as great as the sense of euphoria.
Mr McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the peace talks, was not even sure which seat he was allowed to sit in.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and now First Minister of Northern Ireland, turned round in his chair trying in his own words to look "suitably relaxed" for the moment-of-history photograph.
The anxiety proved well placed. A little over two months later, the executive was no longer sitting, suspended by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson as the Ulster Unionists threatened to pull out of the power-sharing arrangement because of the IRA's failure to decommission.
And yet it bounced back - or at least, sloped back, a more chastened beast this time, realistic rather than optimistic about its chances to make local government work for the province.
Because, whatever it does manage to achieve, the executive is not master of its own destiny, it is a slave to the peace process, which remains mired in uncertainty, distrust and unfulfilled pledges.
Today that process looks as rocky as ever. Ulster Unionists have already taken the first step in their sliding scale of sanctions against Sinn Fein as punishment for the IRA's failure - or refusal - to decommission its weapons.
They have banned Sinn Fein's two ministers - Mr McGuinness, who runs the education department, and Bairbre de Bruin, who is in charge of the health department - from attending cross-border ministerial meetings.
In response, Sinn Fein has taken the case to court and accused Mr Mandelson of always siding with unionists against republicans.
Few observers can see beyond next January and the next Ulster Unionist Council meeting, when the executive may once again fall victim to matters beyond its control - decommissioning, policing, demilitarisation.
But the executive can trumpet some achievements, which seem to defy the logic of the political world it operates in.
This autumn it published its own 'Programme for Government', agreed by all parties to the executive - and that includes Ian Paisley's anti-agreement unionists, the DUP.
The Finance Minister, Mark Durkan, has shared out £5.7bn for his colleagues to spend on agreed projects.
"That's the stuff of real politics," he said, "rather than the sterile stand-off which has passed for politics for generations. It might be hard for some of us involved but in overall terms, it is good for this society and this community."
Even the DUP's ministers are peddling their policies hard. Gregory Campbell is currently minister for regional development. (His party is rotating its ministers every three months as a gesture of disapproval for the power-sharing arrangement).
He boarded a train with the BBC to publicise his policy of offering free public transport to all old age pensioners.
"We hope it will come into play next summer," he told one passenger, "though we have to be able to pay for it."
Free public transport, where else in the UK would you find that? It is local government at work for local people. And yet Mr Campbell's other message revealed the fragility of the offer.
"When you have one minister taking another minister to court, when you have people in the government who have this private army at their beck and call, when you have the stresses and strains of hundreds of terrorist prisoners released early, that simply isn't sustainable in the longer term."
But for now the ministers go about their work regardless.
Mr McGuinness has instituted a wide-ranging review of the 11-plus exam for schoolchildren; his Sinn Fein colleague has taken bold decisions on hospital closures; Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist trade minister, has travelled the globe promoting local businesses; while Sean Farren of the SDLP has assessed the options for cutting student fees.
Workaday parliamentary matters rather than the paramilitary matters of old.
The sense of normality in Northern Ireland is such that the peace process has become boring to most people.
There is an overwhelming sense that life will go on calmly enough, for all the huffing and puffing of the parties.
Reality has a habit of hitting back hard in this province though. And a further crisis may be only a few weeks away.
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