TIMES have changed.

There was a time when we marched up the road towards the edge of the city, away from the centre. Until one day a whisper went through the marching crowds – we’re marching the wrong way. So they marched to the City Hall, not away from it.

There was a time when the marchers swung into Wellington Place heading towards the City Hall and a mighty cheer went up as these citizens for the first time asserted ownership of their own place.

There was a time when an international conference held not in a quiet corner but in one of central Belfast’s biggest hotels, with delegates from Norway, America, France, all over, discussed Ireland’s future, and  some workers heard Gerry Adams was to visit and they  threatened to go on strike.

But that was then, this is now – chuaigh sin, thainig seo, times change. Now you’re nice about the City Hall and Stormont because one day you may be in there managing  them. And nowadays if you’re nervous about your court case happening at the same time as the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis across the street, you don’t do what you did years ago and tell Sinn Féin to go talk in Dunville Park, you postpone your court case. And if you invite a Presbyterian minister to join you in conversation, he comes and  placard-carrying demonstrators don’t. It  is all about asserting and respecting dignity. Not superiority. Dignity. Ours and other people’s. Recognising dignity, not fearing domination.

It is about making our own decisions too. People fear officials in Europe will control them, and European nations will pay the price of fighting each other in the past by losing their ability to govern themselves now. We must have a say in that. And we can have a say if we assert our own dignity and our demand to make our voices not only heard but effective. People in Ireland’s northeast never had real power – we could carry out other people’s policies with more or less advantage to us; we  had the power not to make  policies but to fiddle with other people’s. Our dignity demands now  that we make our own policies, economic policy, foreign policy, social policy, educational policy. So the major question has to be, in what political context can that be done? Put all our choices on the table and discuss them as a free people working to express our freedom in the most appropriate way. Other people do not give us our freedom, we are a free people and have to make sure our freedom is expressed, is effective and  not hindered.

Our freely-made choices in Ireland were never allowed on the table – United Ireland, Federal Ireland, Integration with Britain, Independence for Ulster or part of it, return of unionist government, choices made by Irish people but never allowed around the negotiating table. The only solution allowed to be discussed was control by London with some devolving of powers as determined by London – a solution  no Irish people, nationalist, unionist, republican or other  had asked for.

Now the question can be put – which of these, or what compromise between them, best suits our need to create our own policies for government, economic prosperity, fairness and dignity?

Much depends on whether we have confidence, not in the religion of our fellow citizens, or even their politics, but in their belief that our people have the  intelligence, the knowledge, the organisational ability, the integrity, the will, not just to make changes in a system, but to weld together our own idealisms to create what we want in government, that is, for the first time, Benevolent Power.

That Waterfront Weekend just past was a powerful symbol indeed.