Northern Ireland people are such a cautious breed that many are uneasy about expressing political emotions in public – especially, oddly enough, when things are going reasonably well, and when their feelings tend towards the positive.
By Northern Ireland standards 2011 was an unusually positive year in most respects. It saw peace bedding in, and the political institutions developing a perhaps unexpected degree of stability.
This place once seemed cursed always to live in interesting times, as the release of government papers from 1981 has just graphically illustrated. Ten republican hungerstrikers died that year, and so too did 108 other people.
In 2011 the death toll was just one. Politics has become only fitfully interesting and often downright boring. Most of the fireworks have disappeared, and gone too is the old sense that matters of life and death hang on political decisions.
The year saw various crises, but none of them reached the level that used to set the landscape alight, and none really threatened to endanger the Assembly.
The most tragic of the crises came in April with the dissident republican murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, the sole terrorist killing of the year.
This brought anguish for his family, yet it also provided a moment in which different traditions expressed a strong and even inspiring sense of emerging communal solidarity.
Among the many points which the dissidents have failed to grasp is that, though they may cause further deaths, nothing will turn back the clock to the bad old days.
They did not manage that with the Omagh bombing in 1998, and they did not manage it by killing Constable Kerr: the futility of both acts was obvious.
The sporadic dissident violence, and to a lesser extent the more localised flare-ups of loyalist paramilitary remnants in Belfast, have hampered efforts to make policing more community-orientated, but they have not halted them.
At the height of the troubles the RUC had 160 stations: today there are half that number, and by the spring that will probably be reduced to fewer than 60.
This process is not the stuff of heated controversy, as it would have been in previous times. It is under discussion, with surprising civility and without pyrotechnics, within the Policing Board where all the major parties are represented.
One man’s journey from 1981 to the present day illustrates how far things have changed. As an IRA prisoner Pat Sheehan spent 55 days on hungerstrike and was approaching death when the protest was called off. “I was longest on the hungerstrike at the time it finished,” he later recalled. “If it had continued I have no doubt that I would have died.”
Today he is a Sinn Fein representative both in the Assembly and on the Policing Board, contributing to the debate on the number of police stations needed.
1981 was a particularly low point in Anglo-Irish relations, with Dublin and London completely at odds over how to deal with the hungerstrike. By 1985, however, Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald had succeeded in opening a new era of cooperation with their Anglo-Irish agreement.
Later Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern – both much villified for different reasons – took the risks which moved the peace process forward. Together they ushered in a new golden age of Anglo-Irish relations, marked by the resounding success of the Queen’s visit to the Republic.
A new civility has meanwhile crept into political life, especially in relations between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The two coped with the reduced subvention from Westminster, even though they have very different constituencies, approaches and agendas.
Yet the DUP managed to satisfy east Belfast while the republicans kept west Belfast reasonably happy. The fact that they did so essentially behind closed doors was not to everyone’s liking, and certainly displeased the Ulster Unionists and SDLP.
2011 saw a further decline in the fortunes of these parties, both of them losing seats in Assembly elections in May. In their different ways the two parties previously made vital contributions to putting the present arrangements together: there would not have been a settlement without them.
But now both are struggling to re-define themselves and develop approaches that might rebuild their flagging morale and restore their fading relevance. To come back in from the periphery they will need to win more Assembly seats, but to do that they will need to come up with convincing new performances and proposals.
Unless they manage to do so in 2012 the initiative looks destined to remain with the DUP – Sinn Fein axis. Each made gains in the election so that together they hold 67 of the 108 Assembly seats, enough to provide them with a solid lock on power.
That would only remain solid, of course, so long as they stick together. They give every appearance of doing so, for neither has anywhere else to go. The UUP and SDLP are numerically too weak to provide alternative allies in government.
While it goes without saying that the DUP and Sinn Fein are not natural partners, in 2011 they became more committed than ever to a system of mutual support.
The deal they have arrived at gives them leeway to disagree, at times strongly. Party members are allowed to attack each other; Sammy Wilson has the freedom to poke fun at IRA hungerstrikers; Gregory Campbell is allowed to be truculent; the Nolan show is an acceptable battleground. But the clashes are essentially mock battles.
The letting off of steam takes place within limits and on the strict understanding that nothing should be uttered which might endanger the coalition and thus the system.
Few ever envisaged that the troubles would give way to the present system of virtual two-party government, certainly not based on the DUP and Sinn Fein. It’s all very imperfect and counter-intuitive. It’s also a cumbersome system atop a cumbersome and often inefficient bureaucracy.
Is it popular with the public? Not very, on one reading: there is much talk out there of useless, overpaid politicians, of the Stormont gravy train, of cynicism and sectarian carve-ups.
And yet the 2011 election produced unmistakeable votes of confidence both in the institutions and in the DUP – Sinn Fein brand of powersharing. There is not complete stability, yet there is more of it than Northern Ireland has known for at least half a century.
This has come about partly through the outbreak of compromise in recent years, but also through the opening of a file, somewhere in Stormont, which must be labelled something like Not Yet. In it are the unresolved issues.
Parades and marches are in there, and so is a less divided system of education, and better community relations generally, and the question of how to begin dismantling the dozens of peacelines. So is dealing with the past: despite years of debate, no clear way ahead has emerged.
It is difficult to envisage any of those issues being cleared up in 2012: the only realistic hope is that some progress can be made in some of them. It was a long war, and the process of peacebuilding looks like taking decades rather than years.
Still, the progress already made is measureable both in the establishment of powersharing and the reduction in the death toll.
A glance back at 1981 shows how much things have changed, and how the mayhem and poisons of that year have given way to the political boredom – the blessed boredom – of today.
David/Eamonn, The big headlines in this piece are the boredom of politics, which illustrates the progress, and the futility of a dissident ‘war’ that cannot be won. And, I think, this is one of the big challenges of 2012 – to bring that debate out into the open; to create a stage for that conversation, and to challenge those involved in the various dissident factions to explain what it is they are involved in and what it is they think it can achieve. We know, from our working experience, that ignoring them won’t make them go away and that they won’t be condemned out of existence. This needs a thinking and a talking approach.