Watching the edition of Question Time from Northern Ireland, I genuinely surprised myself by how irritated I became at the treatment of anti-agreement unionist Jim Allister. He undoubtedly is, as was pointed out on the programme, a real political dinosaur who offers a thoroughly uninspiring prospectus for Northern Ireland's future. But the rhetoric deployed against him, especially by the Labour (also ex-Tory) NI Secretary Shaun Woodward went considerably further than that - at one or two moments it even seemed vaguely reminiscent of the treatment of Nick Griffin on Question Time a few months ago, ie. implying that he is a politician who operates outside the bounds of mainstream and legitimate discourse.
There's a supreme irony here. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, another party played the 'untouchable' role that now seems to have been bestowed upon Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice - and that party was Sinn Féin. Even before the broadcast ban, it was considered almost a thought-crime to say or do anything that implied Sinn Féin were a legitimate party. It wasn't enough to condemn IRA violence as utterly repugnant - John Hume spent his career doing so, and yet in the early 1990s he was demonised by the establishment for holding talks with Gerry Adams and trying to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold. There was no room for subtlety or shades of grey - 'talking to terrorists' was simply wrong and immoral regardless of circumstance. But can anyone now doubt that Hume's courageous thinking 'out of the box' was absolutely correct and necessary?
And now we have moved miraculously and seamlessly on to a situation where Sinn Féin are in the mainstream, and the designated untouchables are on the completely opposite end of the political spectrum. What was so objectionable about Woodward's attack was his cynical blurring of the distinction between Allister's opposition to power-sharing on the one hand, and a support for a return to violence on the other. However misguided and backward-looking it is, opposition to mandatory coalition in the Northern Ireland Assembly is a perfectly legitimate policy for a political party to put forward and argue the case for in a democratic election, and for Woodward to speak of it as if it was somehow akin to, say, the BNP's repatriation policy was thoroughly disreputable.
It seems to me Northern Ireland politics will only really have come of age when the idle dreams of fringe politicians can be swatted aside in a rather more civilised manner than we saw last night.