Today, we have agreed

Observations on Northern Ireland

"Today, we have agreed with Sinn Fein . . ." Ian Paisley's throaty purr of those seven words was something nobody could ever have foreseen. Almost every political observer in Northern Ireland expected some deal, such was the body language and mood in the recent poll in the province. The buzzword from civil society, the media and every political party except Sinn Fein and the DUP was summed up in a Belfast Telegraph headline the day after the election: "Now get on with it."

The shock still reverberated. There was Dr Paisley, sitting two feet from Gerry Adams. There was Adams, with a paper Easter lily pinned to his lapel next to his fáinne, a silver badge expressing support for and practice of the Irish language. "Tús maith leath na hoibre," he intoned, next to Dr Paisley. "A good start is half the work."

Adams's helpful translation to his regular droppings of Gaelic in his agreed statement was as startling as the insouciance with which Paisley received such ancient droplets of wisdom. The DUP until recently regularly referred to Gaelic as a "leprechaun language". One of their biggest beefs with the gains won by Sinn Fein during the St Andrews' Agreement of last November was the introduction of an Irish Language Act. This is designed to raise the profile and status of Gaelic in all spheres of government. It was used by Peter Hain, the Secretary of State, as a bludgeon to coerce the DUP into accepting devolved power-sharing government with SF, on the understanding that a really comprehensive act would be rammed through Westminster by an Order in Council, whereas in Stormont the DUP could neuter the bits they didn't like.

Such has been Hain's main tactic since he became NI Secretary. It's the opposite of Blair's "masochism strategy" in the run-up to the Iraq war. Some might call it a "sadism strategy", others could call it rule by benevolent neglect, or even deliberate incompetence. Hain did enough annoying things - fiddling with rates, schools and public sector jobs, and apologising on behalf of Belfast for slavery, despite its being one of the few cities where the slave trade was consistently opposed - to leave every sector of NI society pleading for its untested politicians to take over.

Whatever the cunning plan, it worked, and the Prime Minister has the legacy of legacies to take with him into retirement. Blair and his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, took over negotiations in recent weeks, sidelining Hain as they did Mo Mowlam when she became a liability with Unionists. It is widely believed that Blair's acceptance of the DUP's requirement for one more face-saving delay came from John Reid, a move that was locally interpreted in Belfast parlance as a "slap in the bake" for the present Secretary of State. That leaves six weeks until devolution is properly restored on 8 May, or VE Day, as just over half the incoming Northern Ireland Executive calls it. When the new Executive meets that day, it will inherit an Ulster changed more drastically than most could have imagined when they entered politics, in some cases more than four decades ago.

The sectarian certainties have become frozen in working-class areas though, a huge problem for the public purse. The centrist Alliance Party credibly estimates that more than £1bn per year is spent on facilitating segregation: an apartheid schooling system, duplication of social services, separate swimming pools.

But in other ways, NI has changed utterly since the late Sixties. Heavy industry has vanished. The shipyard that employed 20,000 at its peak is about to be regenerated with riverside apartments and space for high-tech small enterprises.

There is a serious "brain drain" of middle-class Protestants, who move to Scotland or England for university. Most stay away, their intellectual capital invested elsewhere. Then there is the recent influx of immigrants. It is estimated that 40,000 Poles work alongside significant numbers of migrants from Portugal, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Russia and the Middle East. These join a growing Chinese ethnic community that has just had elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly its first elected representative in any European parliament. Anna Lo moved from Hong Kong to Belfast three decades ago, and is mystified and frustrated by the sectarian obsessives who dominate Ulster. That is why, she says, she is an Alliance Party assembly member first, and not a "representative" of her ethnicity.

Lo is part of the small bloc of centrist parties that will act as opposition to the four faith-based parties which will carve up the Executive, and can never be removed as this is intended to be a permanent coalition. The seven Alliance assembly members, with three de facto independents, will be the only critical voices: 98 MLAs out of 108 will have a party stake in debates and thought.

Recent legislation hailed by liberals is in force in NI solely because of direct rule. Hain made a point of introducing by an Order in Council laws that the DUP hates, notably those affecting gays and lesbians, such as civil partnerships and adoption. It sincerely believes that these equalising acts discriminate against Christians, who have lost their ancient rights and God-anointed duties to Get the Fags. Bear this in mind amid the shock and glee of seeing Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams make partners, if not whoopee.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom