David Cameron's NI trip was always going to be low-key in comparison to Queen's recent Dublin visit.

After what David Cameron referred to as the "extraordinary and historic" trip by the Queen to the Irish Republic, the prime minister's own visit to Stormont was always going to seem a little flat by comparison.

However, as Mr Cameron shook hands with Stormont staff amidst the grandeur of the Great Hall, there was plenty of evidence of how far we have come.

Unlike Gordon Brown, who previously addressed MLAs, the prime minister didn't have to urge the parties to overcome an obstacle and keep the process on track.

Instead he could celebrate stability and look forward to more of the same.

In contrast to the old antagonisms of Northern Ireland politics, Mr Cameron joked that both the first and deputy first ministers had assured him May's assembly elections had been more peaceful and good natured than the AV referendum.


With the Treasury's consultation on corporation tax still live, Mr Cameron couldn't officially commit the government one way or the other.

However the secretary of state is already so far over the parapet on this it's hard to imagine Owen Paterson being able to live down a negative decision by the Treasury.

Certainly the prime minister's emphasis on the unique arguments for Northern Ireland being given flexibility - a legacy of violence and a land border with the Irish Republic - could be interpreted as a justification for granting the taxation power to Stormont, but not to Edinburgh.

Martin McGuinness is predicting a decision by the end of this year or the start of 2012.

Thirty-seven years ago a previous occupant of Number Ten, Harold Wilson, stirred fury when he called loyalist strikers "spongers".

But Mr Cameron was listened to respectfully as he told MLAs that "Northern Ireland continues to receive 25% more per head in public spending than England, but the days are over when the answer to every problem is simply to ask the Treasury for more money".

No spare change

Peter Robinson insists the executive isn't interested in "begging bowl politics".

Listening to the prime minister's speech it's clear London has no spare change to offer.

The Alliance Party will have been especially delighted by the prime minister's emphasis on the cost of division and the "depressing" increase in the number of peace walls.

The report he quoted on the £1.5bn cost of duplicating public services has long been a staple of their campaigns.

His determination that "Northern Ireland needs a genuinely shared future, not a shared out future", was a catchy line, although as he acknowledged it will be the executive, not Westminster, which will be in the vanguard of deciding the future of community relations.

Although he tried to play down the old security agenda, Mr Cameron couldn't have visited without pledging to face down dissident republicans, condemning Ronan Kerr's murder as a "vile and cowardly act".

He didn't back away from his previously expressed preference for change to the Stormont system to one which includes an opposition (something the Ulster Unionists in his audience appreciated), but added that nothing would be imposed on the local parties.


With the Smithwick tribunal holding public hearings in Dublin and the Northern Ireland attorney general ordering a fresh inquest into the murder of UDA victim Gerard Slane, suspected collusion remains very much in the public eye.

In this respect it was significant that whilst Mr Cameron ruled out "costly and open ended inquiries" he did not rule out future inquiries full stop.

Mr Cameron hailed the government's handling of the Bloody Sunday inquiry as an example of his willingness to: "Face up to difficult realities....through Saville we've shown that where the state has acted wrongly, we will face up to, and account for, what we have done. Others too must think about how to face up to their part in the mistakes and tragedies of the past."

That sounded like a challenge to the paramilitaries.

If the state co-operates with future inquiries will they come clean too?

The events of recent weeks - Smithwick, the Gerard Slane inquest and the controversy over Mary McArdle's appointment as a special adviser, have all underlined the potential for past trauma to resonate into the future.

Some interpret the decision by former IRA members to give evidence to the Smithwick tribunal as a sign a wider truth commission could be in the offing.

Yet just last weekend Martin McGuinness told me there may never be a consensus on how to deal with the past.

The next development to look for will be how the Northern Ireland Office handles the case of Pat Finucane.

It will also be fascinating to see how the proposed conflict transformation centre at the site of the old Maze jail handles the competing narratives of the troubles.

Executive ministers are confident that EU-funding for this initiative will be secured and there may be more details on this score when senior European figures visit Londonderry at the end of this month.