Posted By: January 22, 2015

Jim Gibney. Irish News ( Belfast). January 15, 2015

IT took less than an hour for the last political and symbolic vestige of unionist political domination in Ireland to withdraw into history after several centuries. 

There was no fanfare for its departure. 

There was no victory march. 

There was no sign of triumphalism. 

There was no sign of defeat, of humiliation. 

I watched from the gallery as one of Sinn Féin’s leading figures, Mitchel McLaughlin, was voted into the office of speaker of the north’s assembly – voted into office with the support of the DUP and Alliance parties. 

For the most part, in the chamber, there was relaxed satisfaction that political maturity and acceptance of political reality merged to make this important and needed decision. 

This contented mood in the chamber and gallery was in marked contrast to the occasions when Martin McGuiness was appointed minister for education and later deputy first minister. 

On both occasions the gallery was packed with angry unionists who mustered audible gasps of disbelief that political life had taken such a sharp turn. 

And in the chamber unionist MLAs had sharpened their tongues to razor precision to slash all around them. 

As they understood it their world had ended but as time showed it had not been upended – equality had arrived and it would seep into their everyday lives, whether they agreed with it. 

Observing all the goings on in the chamber from the gallery I recalled an interview in the early 1970s by Ian Smith, the white supremacist, who was prime minister of then Rhodesia, saying of black majority rule: never in a thousand years. A few years, later in a new Zimbabwe, democracy arrived in the form of black majority rule. 

On this very notable occasion Peter Robinson settled comfortably into his assembly seat. He looked across at the Sinn Féin benches where Martin McGuinness sat with an equally contented look on his face. 

There was an air of confidence in the first minister’s demeanour. 

Question marks about his leadership or his relevance now replaced with the flush of success from the all-party Stormont House Agreement. 

Peter Robinson – the ‘comeback kid’ had done it again. 

Written off by many pundits a short while ago, through the agreement he had written himself and his party back into the centre of positive politics and helped prevent the collapse of the north’s political institutions. Interestingly, it was left to Gregory Campbell – more noted for his Ian Smith-type instincts – to acknowledge the scale of change brought in by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) with its compulsory equality provisions. 

He reminded the unionists in the chamber that if every one of them voted for a single unionist MLA “he would still not get elected”. Cross-community agreement was needed – an indispensable and democratic instrument of the GFA, which was still helping to shape the north’s politics over 15 years later – precisely what it was designed to do. 

It was also left to Campbell to swat like an irritable fly the lone, dissenting and bitter unionist voice of Jim Allister, who winged his way through recent history with blame only for republicans. 

Campbell reminded his erstwhile colleague Allister that he had walked away for 18 years while other unionists had stayed and faced republicans. 

From the gallery I felt Allister’s isolation in that stinging put down. 

But more leadership of this progressive kind from the DUP was needed to close down the space that Allister was moving in and in order to mobilise reactionary unionists and loyalists. 

The Allister side-show did not detract one iota from the special occasion that was also reflected in Martin McGuinness’s remarks when he proposed Mitchel McLaughlin as speaker. 

He referred to his friendship of 40 years with Mitchel and Marylou, his wife. He spoke of his leadership qualities, his “dedication and thoughtfulness”. 

And only as Martin McGuinness can do on these set occasions he spoke about a “Derryman taking over from, William Hay, a Londonderry man.” 

Equality cuts both ways and his use of the word ‘Londonderry’ was another important gesture on a day when gestures turned another page in the north’s unstoppable march towards what Martin McGuinness described as a society based on “equality and inclusiveness.”