FOR the first time since the Lord knows when — and that's an eternity — there is now a flicker of hope for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
The flame will need to be sheltered and tended with care, but for the first time since Merlyn Rees ended internment there is now a positive chance of both communities working together for the good of the whole of the Six Counties.
The failure of the Loyalist strike organised by Ian Paisley and his extreme supporters in the Ulster Workers' Action Council, meant that the Loyalists in the Six Counties were unwilling to put their economic future at risk.
This has created a new situation in which for the first time .the moderate Loyalist politicians, can make moves to bring a political solution to the problems of the Six Counties without for ever having to look over their shoulders to see if the "Big Fellah" was likely to plunge a knife into their political backs.
In the interests of his peculiar brand of loyalism, Mr Paisley was responsible for ending abruptly the careers of a number of Northern Ireland Prime Ministers as well as contributing to the downfall of the ill-fated power-sharing Executive. He ensured that when the Convention met to consider what form of government should take the place of the power-sharing Executive there would be a majority report from the Convention advocating a return to the Stormont type of government which existed before the troubles.
The failure of the strike demonstrates the courage of the Loyalist workers in the Six Counties in confronting intimidation, keeping the shops open and the factories working. The harshest intimidation is not the factory pickets, the jostling in the streets or the road blocks, but the hidden and secret threats, the anonymous telephone calls. .
That is far harder to face, accept or come to terms with than the mob of an angry picket. With the mob you know who you are facing: the disembodied voice at the other end of the telephone line is unknown. Those who have experienced the anonymous threats know the fears, the clamminess, the sweat. There is no solidarity with others: you are alone. The questions tumble over each other: "Do you tell your wife/children/police?"
Whose face is it? The man next to you in the bus queue? The person standing next to you in the shop? The neighbour across the road? Is your house being watched? Are your movements being followed on your way to work? Is your child going to be safe while you go about your businpss?
If you tell the police, is it worth while? have they enough men to cope? Can they maintain a 24-hour watch upon you and your family? I salute the courage of those thousand Northern Ireland people who disreguarded the attacks and went to work.
Paradoxically, the defeat of Dr Paisley has also been a powerful blow against the Provisional IRA. Particularly after the fall of the Executive, it was said that the police and Armed Forces would never act against Loyalists.
At the time there seemed to be some substance in the argument. That argument has gone. The reforms of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which were started by our present Prime Minister when he was Home Secretary over eight years ago, changing the RUC from a para-military organisation to a normal police force acceptable by the whole community, has now begun to bear fruit.
It could not change overnight,
and of course there will be parts of the Six Counties where even the reformed RUC will never be accepted — for understandable reasons. Nevertheless, the manner in which the RUC tackled the intimidation and cleared the road blocks with the Army having little or nothing to do, has ensured that the RUC is now more acceptable to the minority in the Province.
As I write, the result of the local government elections on Wednesday for Northern Ireland have yet to be declared. If there has been that same rejection of Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party at the polls as there was in the strike, then the omens seem set fair for Roy Mason to take fiesh initiative.
The moves to bring Bill Craig of the Vanguard Movement back within the fold of the Official Unionist Party will come to fruition. With Craig restored to the higher councils of the Official Unionist Party there will be every encouragement for the Official Unionists' and the SDLP to come together and work for a solution.
The minority Alliance, Northern Ireland Labour, and Northern Ireland Unionist Parties will support some sort of power-sharing arrangements which recognises the aspirations of the two communities.
It will not be easy to achieve, but handled with care it is something which can succeed. It is too soon to start pencilling in what the precise institutions will be: the talks have first to start.
The people of the Province of both communities are war-weary and want a return to normality which can come only with a form of devolved government. acceptable to both communities. The ball is now very firmly in the politicians' court. The role of Roy Mason is to ensure that once the politicians start negotiating, nothing is done on or off the field to kick the ball into touch.