In my view

Across the world today millions of people with Irish connections, and many without, will be raising a glass and celebrating St Patrick's Day.

Across the world today millions of people with Irish connections, and many without, will be raising a glass and celebrating St Patrick's Day. And today could just be the best St Patrick's Day for many a year.

We stand tantalisingly close to seeing the re-instatement of democratic self-government in Northern Ireland, with the hope of continued peace and greater prosperity. Nothing is yet certain and even if this does become reality, it will still be a difficult place in which to develop real progress.

But the will of the people is clear. They have turned their backs on decades of bullets and bombs.

They want to see their leaders engaging in real dialogue, not diatribe. They want to build a better world for their bairns than that experienced by previous generations.

The story of Ireland is one of desperate struggle and hardship, no matter which community you come from. One in which everyone, but especially the poor, has suffered.

The emergence of the Republic of Ireland as a real European economic force has been remarkable.

They didn't let Europhobia prevent them making the most of the European Union. Their progress in economic and social terms is something which we can learn from, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland.

The establishment of the joint Irish bodies, the development of a cross-border tourist industry and the sharing of energy resources all bode well for the future of the whole island, regardless of the constitutional settlement.

Many people have played significant roles in getting us to where we are today. John Major took the brave decisions to meet republicans in secret when his party would have been appalled to know. Tony Blair seized the initiative.

Bill Clinton contributed to the process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. Bertie Ahern has played a positive role on behalf of the Republic, which included them changing their own constitution.

And we should not forget the contribution of Mo Mowlem, who despite serious ill health pushed people further than any of us dared hope.

But beneath all the headliners there have been thousands of ordinary folk standing up for peace. People such as Brian Ferguson, the Unison convener in Northern Ireland who, despite real pressure from his own community, was one of the first to come out publicly in favour of the Agreement. Or the staff at the A&E department at the Mater Hospital in Belfast who refused to let terrorists jump the queue in their wards despite threats from gun wielding thugs.

Or the people today, who are turning away from terrorism and urging young people not to engage in crime and not waste their young lives in jail as they sadly did.

As a former trade union representative in Northern Ireland and as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Parliament, I have seen immense changes over the last 20 years. Last Christmas, I stood in the grounds of Belfast City Hall, amazed to see a fantastic Christmas market with everything from German sausages to French wine on sale. Less than a decade ago there was barbed wire, sentry boxes and machine guns.

There are still serious questions to be answered. Will Ian Paisley, the big man of Irish politics, the man who would never get a job with Del Monte, ever say yes? Will the dissident republicans, who attacked Sinn Fein for engaging in the democratic process, ever gain enough support to restart a paramilitary campaign?

And perhaps most worrying , will a reconstituted assembly just become a bear pit in which to continue turning over the ashes of eight centuries of hate?

I sincerely hope not, and I hope that the people in Ireland and the millions of us who now visit on a regular basis will convince the politicians that a new day has dawned and we have to go forward together.

It is too easy to forget and take things for granted. But on today of all days, we should spare a minute to thank God that we have seen the great people of Ireland turn their back on the way of terror and choose the path to peace. We can only wish them well. Sláinte.

* Dave Anderson has been the Member of Parliament for Blaydon since May 2005. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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