Already any return to the bad old days looks unthinkable

 

David Trimble and Seamus Mallon celebrated the first hundred days of their partnership last week. The two men were in the United States to launch a "road-show" designed to convince American businessmen of the investment opportunities in the new peaceful Northern Ireland.

At one level this image of Trimble and Mallon, leaders of unionism and nationalism, seated side by side in a glossy Manhattan hotel to promote Northern Ireland's economy underlines how much things have changed in the three and a bit months since they were elected as First and Deputy First Ministers by the new Assembly. The emphasis now is on the economic and social benefits which a secure peace can bring.

It has been, in David Trimble's own words, a "knuckle-biting, roller-coaster ride", and the bumpy bits are not over yet. The obstacle of decommissioning still looms. Pressures on Trimble from within his own party are likely to surface again at the Ulster Unionists' conference in 10 days' time. Mo Mowlam has already warned that there may be "slippage" of the October 31st deadline for setting up the new executive.

And yet, in spite of these difficulties, there is a fairly general confidence that this hurdle, too, will be overcome. There is a real sense that politics has taken root and that the obvious benefits of power and patronage make it unthinkable that there should be any return to the bad old days.

David Trimble has grown into the job of First Minister in a way which has earned admiration in Dublin and London. He seems much more relaxed and at ease with himself, as though the events of the summer have given him a new confidence and sense of purpose.

The partnership between the Ulster Unionist leader and Seamus Mallon has worked well, despite the political difference between the two men. Their personal styles complement each other. Trimble is didactic, down to earth, with an obsessional grasp of detail. Mallon is more of a visionary, determined to keep all eyes fixed on the main prize, peace and a stable political settlement for all the people of Northern Ireland.

This is the more impressive because their joint venture got off to a very shaky start. No sooner were the first euphoric pictures of the new Assembly seen across the world than they were faced with a series of events which seemed to threaten the continuation of peace itself.

It was unfortunate that the first crisis should have come with Drumcree. The two men, not unnaturally, approached the problem from seriously different perspectives. Although they tried to present a common front in pleading for moderation, the gulf between them could not be concealed.

It was the murder of the three small Quinn boys and the moral clarion call from the Rev William Bingham which drew them together.

Their partnership was forged in bonds of steel by Omagh. Despite the overwhelming grief of those days, the message that came through from the people who had suffered was that the bomb must not be allowed to derail the political process.

When David Trimble was applauded by the congregation in a church in Donegal, to which he had travelled for the funeral of one of the victims, it demonstrated in the most poignant way how people in both parts of Ireland share the common yearning for peace.

There are other reasons, much less emotional but just as important, why the whole political process has come to seem much more firmly rooted in the brief months since the Assembly first met. One has only to look at the amount of activity at Stormont where, to borrow Liam Clarke's wonderful phrase last weekend in the Sunday Times, Northern Ireland's political class can "pig out on democracy until it is bloated and content."

Mr Clarke made the point that it isn't just the 108 elected Assembly members with salaries of £35,000 per annum, generous expenses and the opportunity to earn further allowances as members of committees, who stand to benefit.

There are political aides and advisers, press officers and translators for the debates (from Ulster-Scots as well as Irish). In the near future there will be a civic forum and cross-Border bodies, a British-Irish council, commissions on discrimination and human rights and whatever you're having yourself. These will need politicians to serve on them and officials to service the politicians.

This is all part of settling the fragile plant of politics firmly in Northern Ireland's long-neglected soil. Nobody grudges the cost, at least for the moment. Both governments know that if peace can be secured the long-term economic and social dividends will be incalculable.

This point is made very strongly this week in a position paper published by a joint council, composed of members drawn from the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation in this State and the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland.

The group stresses the opportunities for economic development presented by Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement. and urges the two governments to build on them. They cite a whole range of issues on which closer co-operation would benefit business, and by extension create employment, on both sides of the Border.

These range from important policy developments such as a joint approach to areas of EU funding, transport facilities and telecommunications, to much smaller steps such as standardising the postal charges and telephone dialling codes between the two parts of the island.

This is the first paper on North-South co-operation under the Belfast Agreement that has been published by a non-governmental organisation. It is no coincidence that it comes from the world of business. John Kenna of the IBEC/CBI Joint Business Council makes the point that trade between the two parts of Ireland has increased dramatically in recent years, but that the potential exists for much greater development.

"It's the economy, stupid" has become a catch-phrase for editorial writers commenting on the popularity, or otherwise, of politicians. The progress of the Northern Ireland peace process is no exception to the general rule. Compared with the alarums of decommissioning, for example, the nitty-gritty of a cross-Border energy policy may lack drama.

But, once we reach the wonderful point where peace can be taken for granted, the Belfast Agreement will be judged by the tangible, economic benefits which it brings to both communities in Northern Ireland. That is why it is appropriate that David Trimble and Seamus Mallon should have spent the 100th day of their partnership for peace launching an investment drive in the United States.