While the world at large seems to careen forward into some indeterminate future, Northern Ireland remains frozen in time, endlessly locked in the struggles of the past.
Twenty-five years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we might note the lack of significant personages.
Ian Paisley, John Hume, and their contemporaries have left the scene. But the conflict remains, now in a down-market version.
The night that the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I recall watching a panel discussion on RTE in which eminent figures from the Republic attempted to parse the changed situation.
One of them was the leading Fine Gael politician John Bruton, who noted in response to concerns that the agreement didn’t achieve enough that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
This was an unfortunate turn of phrase, given that for 60% of the population of Northern Ireland, the prospect that Rome would be built in any timeframe was a source of great apprehension.
It was clear that inter-communal hostilities were still to be overcome.
Protestants and Catholics in the loyalist and nationalist enclaves had a distaste for each other from the ‘old neighbourhood’. Old, in this case, meant the 17th century.
Much has changed in years since Good Friday. Stormont worked until it didn’t.
The British-ruled province mostly ceased to provide ready occupation for the psychopathic types that used to populate the IRA, the UDA, and their various unapologetically homicidal spinoffs.
Even the grisly 1998 bombing in Omagh, in which 29 people were killed and over 300 injured, could not derail the process.
When the IRA officially agreed to disband in 2001, one might have been forgiven for believing that some sort of corner had been turned.
And yet, the more things change in the United Kingdom and Europe, the more the atavistic fascinations of the Loyalist community are cast in lurid relief.
Things have indeed changed. There are still pockets of grinding poverty, but absolute poverty in Northern Ireland is, according to a recent House of Commons briefing, slightly below the UK.
Northern Ireland is still closer to the bottom in terms of per capita GDP. But it has experienced periods of growth and is no longer the economic dead zone that it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
Religious strife remains. But there has been some loosening of the confessional stranglehold exerted by the leading parties of the respective communities.
While the current dysfunction of the Stormont assembly has been put down to Loyalist issues with the post-Brexit protocol, the underlying reasons have more to do with the reapportionment of seats in the assembly.
In 2016, the Democratic Unionist Party controlled 38 seats in Stormont. The smaller of the Unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party, controlled 16.
Sinn Féin, the leading party in the nationalist community, controlled 28 seats, while the more moderate nationalists in the Social Democratic and Labour Party accounted for 12. The Alliance Party, firmly in the political centre, accounted for 8 seats.
As of the most recent elections in 2022, the most noticeable change is that the DUP has lost more than a quarter of its seats (down to 25), while the Alliance has more than doubled its representation to 17.
Both the UUP and SDLP have declined (to 9 and 8 seats, respectively), while Sinn Féin has remained relatively stable.
One might look at this and conclude that there has been a shift toward the political centre, at least so far as the Unionist communities are concerned. And there has been.
But – and this should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Northern Irish politics – it has also resulted in a hardening of attitudes among the members of the Loyalist base.
A second, parallel dynamic has been the transformation of Sinn Féin.
While the party moved away from its roots as the political wing of the Provisional IRA in the early oughties, it has only been with the passing of IRA-connected leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that Sinn Féin began its move to the centre-left, more interested in bread-and-butter issues than a 32-county republic.
So now we have arrived at the 25th anniversary of Good Friday.
US President Joseph Biden has visited the province, talking about the benefits of the peace process and touting a proposal for $6 billion in economic aid if the political process at Stormont can be restarted.
Let’s consider the oddity of the president proposing a package of economic aid for a region that is part of one of its closest allies and proclaims itself to be a global industrial, financial, and technological power.
Clearly, the benefits that were to be expected from the recovery of sovereignty promised by the boosters of Brexit were always a fantasy, and so they have proved to be in practice.
Still, one outcome of the process is that Northern Ireland is now presented with an economic opportunity which might be the only positive outgrowth of the whole process.
Given the fears related to the return of the hard border and the possibility of a concomitant return to the bad old days of troops on the streets, Molotov Cocktails, and knee-capping, the situation of Northern Ireland now involves an odd degree of latitude.
In order to avoid this, it has become clear that both the British government and the EU are prepared to countenance an arrangement in which Northern Ireland straddles both regimes.
The prospects for economic development attendant upon this must be mouthwatering to the business community and represent a stark contrast to the outlook of much of the last three decades.
Or it would, were it not for a relatively small proportion of the total population, concentrated in the Loyalist communities, who have learned the historical lessons of Northern Ireland all too well.
There was a time, a century ago, when the obsessions of the Unionists made a certain kind of sense.
The politics of refusal engaged in by Edward Carson, James Craig, and the other Irish Unionist leaders synergised with a combination of anti-Irish chauvinism and a desire to retain the most (practically the only) heavily industrialised region of Ireland within the United Kingdom.
Now the valences of the situation have been reversed. The great Loyalist refusal is now no longer about the preservation of Protestant hegemony. That ship has sailed.
The question now is whether Northern Ireland can be made into a viable modern state. The price of failure can only be speculated about.
However, it could easily be a return to the sort of tit-for-tat violence that blighted Northern Ireland for nearly four decades.
The ideologies of the hardcore Loyalist intransigents are, sadly, relatively autonomous from the needs of capital. They remain wedded to the lessons of the first decades of the 20th century.
Perhaps their intransigence will prove out, and there will be a renewed synergy between Unionism and the right-wing populism that has become so prevalent in the UK.
Economic development has the capacity to change this equation.
It is always worthwhile to be sceptical of claims that economic development is a panacea for all social problems, as all too often, its benefits are limited to small fractions at the top of the income distribution.
In this, it is at least arguable that a move in the direction of development can create a space in which democratic (in the sense of post-confessional) identities can thrive.
Perhaps this is what the Loyalist intransigents fear most.
For decades, Loyalists thrived on the propagation of paranoid fantasies of compulsory integration into a 32-country republic organized along Catholic lines.
No such transformation is in prospect, not least because the number of people who actually desire such an outcome is now astonishingly small.
What threatens the Loyalist community is not Catholic domination but irrelevance.
An increasingly large proportion of the population of Northern Ireland has moved on from the obsessions that drove forty years of violent conflict.
What remains to be done is to build a political order than can complete the journey.
Photograph courtesy of Phillip Reed. Published under a Creative Commons license.