Good riddance! Cynics have called it the rotten parliament. Britain has been governed by cheats and charlatans. The expenses scandal sees MPs leaving Westminster this week in disgrace: some justifiably so, many others unfairly tainted by the greed of colleagues.
Scarred by the experience of joining second car dealers, estate agents and journalists in the gutter of public esteem, about a quarter of MPs have decided to retire. Whatever the election outcome, the House of Commons that convenes after May 6 will bear little resemblance to its predecessor.
But wait a minute. Amid all the slights and slurs there have been genuinely uplifting moments during the dying weeks of this parliament. Those who doubt that politics can work – or that individual politicians can change things – should read the valedictory speech delivered by Ian Paisley, the octogenarian erstwhile leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
When Labour was first elected 13 years ago, Northern Ireland was still at war with itself. Mr Paisley’s firebrand unionism and his angry tirades against Catholicism and all its works spoke for the ugly sectarian politics that seemed destined to condemn the province to eternal conflict. Who would have imagined in 1997 that within a few years Mr Paisley would be sharing power in the Northern Ireland government with the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness?
Huge credit here is due to Tony Blair and, before him, John Major, and to Ireland’s Bertie Ahern, for understanding that with patience and perserverance politics can sometimes make the intractable tractable. After 30 years and more than 3,000 deaths, Northern Ireland’s war is over.
The province is not at perfect peace. Bigotry has not been banished from either side of the Protestant/Catholic divide. Fringe Republican groups are still out of kill and maim those who disagree with them.
But listen to Mr Paisley as he offered his support during his last speech in the Commons to legislation that gives former members of the IRA a role in upholding law and order in the province.
“The day has come when Northern Ireland must boldly face the simple facts. There are people in Northern Ireland who have diverse religious and political convictions, but they can live together as neighbours”.
Yes, that from Ian Paisley. Now say politics doesn’t work.