On May 8, five years ago, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were nominated and took their pledges as first minister and deputy first minister of a shared Northern Ireland Executive.   Since then, the parties in the Assembly and Executive have been engaged in practical and productive cooperation which has lead to a more stable situation in Northern Ireland than ever before.

This anniversary is a time to reflect on how far we have come, to give due credit to the political parties for the quiet and patient effort which continues to characterize this process, and to consider what must yet be done. 

This is, after all, a process.  There is no finishing line.  The task of building a society that is more cohesive, more reconciled and of course more prosperous is one that must go on.

At one level, the process is characterized by very different objectives.  Speaking in Iveagh House in Dublin last month, First Minister Peter Robinson spoke of his vision for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. 

Last week, Deputy First Minister McGuinness reminded an audience in London that his goal is a united Ireland.

Yet all are agreed on the need to first address the significant economic challenges facing us north and south.  We are already working closely together on finding ways to reduce costs, deliver services more effectively and plan ahead – for example in electricity generation.

Where all agree too is on the need to continue efforts towards building a society that is not only at peace but that is truly reconciled.  The establishment of stable political institutions was a critical first step towards that goal. 

But institutions in themselves do not determine the future.  People do.

A stable future in Northern Ireland is one where identity is neither diminished nor a source of division.  Where symbols of pride to one are not a source of anger or hurt to another.

The coming centenaries of events which helped define our political shape and identity for a hundred years will be a test of our determination to “bow to history without being bowed by it.”

We speak of restoring our society to prosperity.  Of course this means restoring our public finances, creating more jobs and rebuilding our international reputation. 

But a prosperous society is not measured solely in financial terms.  A prosperous society is one where difference is not merely tolerated but valued as a source of strength.

As we reflect, throughout the coming decade, on the events of 100 years ago, we should also consider what our legacy will be.

The devolved Assembly and Executive are a remarkable demonstration of what can be achieved when people are willing to set aside their differences and find a common ground for cooperation.

The challenge now is to ensure that the rest of society, and particularly younger people, can build on this.  

Sectarianism has not been eliminated, and it can find a root particularly in those who feel the most marginalized in the current difficult economic climate. It is fundamental that we focus on shaping a future where sectarian thought and prejudice no longer has a hold.

If we are to ensure a society that is prosperous in that fuller sense of the word, then the creation of a society that is truly reconciled is one of the greater challenges and arguably the most important.

(Eamon Gilmore is the Irish tanaiste [deputy prime minister] and minister for foreign affairs)

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