I HAD dinner last week with an American academic who hasn't been in Northern Ireland for almost a decade.
Indeed, we last met in early December, 1999, a few days after a vote of the Ulster Unionist Council (ah, do you remember those heady days when UUC meetings were rarely out of the news?) had paved the way to the formal setting up of the Executive Committee.
There were three questions of particular interest to him: had the parties changed very much as a consequence of devolution; had devolved government proved better than direct rule; and had community relations improved? I will give you a flavour of my responses.
Yes, the parties have changed, but since it has been a change which has tended to have been forced upon them it would be a mistake to say that the change has really been for the better.
When the DUP decided to take up its two Executive posts in 1999 (albeit outside rather than inside the room), along with committee positions, Sammy Wilson described their intention as being to "hinder and harry Sinn Fein at every opportunity and ensure that the institutions won't be allowed to survive".
Today, the DUP is in the room and around the same table; but having tinkered with the Agreement architecture in 2006 it is committed now to protecting the institutions while, at the same time, "keeping republicans under the cosh".
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, continues with the view that the Agreement (even after the St Andrews tinkering) is merely a transition stage to a united Ireland.
The fact that the electorate in the Republic of Ireland don't want unity seems entirely lost on the ever wandering Gerry Adams, who insists on telling American audiences that a few dollars more is all that is required for the final push of the British out of Northern Ireland.
So Sinn Fein, instead of concentrating on making Northern Ireland work, does everything it can to wind-up unionists and reassure its own grassroots that the sacrifices, struggle and hunger strikes haven't been in vain.
The SDLP is now trying to sound bigger and tougher than Sinn Fein, which is a bit like Graham Norton pretending to be Hannibal Lecter.
Admittedly it is a scary image, but for entirely the wrong reasons. For all of his pomposity and one-note speeches there was, at least, a certain gravitas to John Hume.
The Ulster Unionists are still annoyed, and rightly so, that having done most of the work in 1997/98, the DUP is happily and loudly claiming the credit for it.
Their task now is finding a role which clearly differentiates them from the DUP without making it look as though they have swung too far to the right.
Ironically, the TUV is bashing away at Peter Robinson, too, so the UUP also has to be careful that it isn't painted into the same corner.
The Alliance Party hasn't changed at all. But then the Alliance Party is congenitally incapable of change. It has done nothing in its entire existence to change the political landscape here. Oh yes, it lectures the rest of us about the cost of sectarianism and barriers but hasn’t persuaded the electorate to take it seriously.
Indeed, in the last decade the only role of the Alliance Party has been to provide puppets to fill the Speaker’s Chair and the offer of another puppet to become Justice Minister.
How can the Alliance Party talk seriously of breaking down barriers when it is willing to provide someone to seal the stitched-up deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein on policing and justice? At least ask for the removal of Ruane as the price for your latest rollover!
So no, in my opinion the political parties have changed very little in the last decade and devolved government hasn’t proved itself as a worthy successor to direct rule.
Which is a genuine pity, say some, because the only way we will finally have ‘normal’ politics in Northern Ireland is when we have parties which are genuinely capable of reflecting normalcy. Unless, of course, normalcy in Northern Ireland already is reflected in our political parties?
It is taken as a given that people in Northern Ireland want ‘something different’ in political and social terms and millions of pounds are spent on all sorts of cross-community projects and shared future propaganda.
If only we could all be educated together, live together, play sports together and work together, it wouldn’t be long before the old barriers collapsed, the peace walls crumbled and spanking new parties emerged to build a new Northern Ireland. Isn’t that right?
But maybe, just maybe, most people don’t actually want that at all? I am, supposedly, a pluralist, liberal unionist: but I live in an exclusively unionist area; I work for a unionist party; I am probably best known as a columnist on a unionist newspaper and a ‘unionist commentator’ on radio and television; I have no friends (in the proper sense of that term, as opposed to the Facebook sense in which everyone you know is somehow a ‘friend’) who are Catholic/nationalist; and I have little, if any, inter-facing with Catholics/nationalists other than through politics.
Do you know something? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest! I don’t have sleepless nights about it. And while I want to make unionism as attractive to as wide an audience as possible I don’t want to attract ‘Catholic’ unionists, or ‘women’ unionists, or ‘Hindu’ unionists just for the sake of attracting them.
For I do really believe that unionism should be theology-blind, colour-blind, gender-blind and everything-else blind. I don’t want my unionism diminished, or diluted or sexed-up just to appeal to certain categories and types of people.
I am a unionist because I believe that my continuing citizenship of the United Kingdom represents the very best socio, cultural, economic and constitutional future for me and my family.
It’s that simple and it’s a unionism which doesn’t rely on religious belief or membership of any organisation.
And if that sort of unionism isn’t acceptable to Sinn Fein, or the SDLP, or the Alliance Party, or the let’s-hug-a-Catholic-because-it-will-make-us-better-people brigade, then tough.
I’m certainly not going to tone it down just to please parties or individuals whose long term agenda is the destruction of unionism altogether.
n Alex Kane is the UUP Director of Communications