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Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 19:00 GMT
If you can't be good, be horrible
Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
Politics Show

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have many challenges ahead
If you can't be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I like the perverse logic contained within that little motto.

Mediocrity is pointless - you can only have purpose by being extremely good, or extremely bad.

It also implies that we have a choice to be either and can even shift between the two extremes.

In some ways, it is the best explanation I have yet seen for our current political dispensation.

Talk to anyone outside (or even inside) politics and the consistent theme is the almost surreal nature of Sinn Fein and the DUP, Paisley and McGuinness, working together in government.

So, if politics here was hitherto a horrible warning to others, it now appears to be a shining example of peacemaking and reconciliation.

That's certainly the view from outside - the international snapshot of Northern Ireland in 2008.

And the first and deputy first minister are keen to exploit that: hence the joint visits to the US before Christmas and Brussels this week.

Diverse opinions

But on the ground, the opinions are more diverse and the picture is definitely more complicated.

It's clear that some big political questions remain - not least the issue of resolving the past as we have seen this week.

For victims and survivors of the conflict there is nothing past tense about their desire for justice.

Their concern is that a political agenda fixated on being a "good example", won't countenance "horrible warnings" from the past.

On the bread and butter issues we find a complicated picture too.

Far from enjoying a peace dividend bounty the executive faces a slowdown in public spending over the coming years.

Peter Robinson may have frozen domestic rates, but new taxes - such as water charges - are on the way.

In order to meet public spending commitments Sinn Fein ministers will continue a privatisation agenda they claim to detest.

Private sector workers face uncertain times, with the uncertain global economy already claiming many jobs.

And in the public sector, pay freezes and job cuts threaten industrial unrest on a scale unseen for decades.

Horrible warning?

And the unity of purpose so clearly demonstrated to the international community by the joint appearances of Messrs Paisley and McGuinness is less evident at Stormont, where Executive colleagues are fond of publicly criticising each other in bitter and personal terms (think Irish language and academic selection).

So, horrible warning or good example?

Seen from inside Northern Ireland the picture is indeed somewhat different.

An appropriate New Year resolution for the local politicians might be to please the people at home as much as the ones abroad.

After all, they're the ones who elect them and pay the bills.

This week in The Politics Show, Rosy takes a behind-the-scenes look at the life of Speaker Willie Hay, Robin has more on that.

In the studio we examine the conundrum of dealing with the past in a way that doesn't conflict with present day needs.

Jim

PS - John Humphrys joined Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs this week.

For me, the Today anchor is simply the best in the business.

When I first started this job I spent a day in London calling on some of my professional heroes to get some words of advice as I sought to ensure my own performance was more "good example" than "horrible warning".

He was extremely courteous and helpful.

"Always be prepared to ignore that voice in your earpiece - you're the one who has to decide the next question, not your producer, or editor," he advised (sorry bosses).

Another big name presenter offered reassurance and despair in equal measure.

When asked how I could get more interesting answers from my subjects he replied: "You can't - they're Northern Ireland politicians, the most useless political species there is."

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