"DESPITE all the Christmas goo on the telly, my favourite is still The West Wing, now banished to the digital channel More4, but in great form at the moment. Stricken with MS, President Bartlett (sic) is now a lame duck with only a year to go. His faithful chief of staff Leo McGarry is recovering from a near fatal heart attack - (unlike John Spencer, the actor playing McGarry, who tragically died from a heart attack just before Christmas).
The President's staffers are buried under a ceaseless round of sudden crises and have lost control of the agenda to a hostile Congress. Leo eventually returns to the White House on light duties.
With his power gone, everybody apologetically ignores him. Unfazed, Leo bides his time. Suddenly he strikes back. Late at night, the President summons his staffers back to the White House for a lecture from Leo.
He writes "365" on a flip chart and tells them: "You've let yourselves become overwhelmed by events and you've given up on our vision. In the White House we can do more in a single day than we can do for the rest of lives when we're outa here. So let's go for the big ones and give them our all."
Being fiction, everybody cheers and gets on with it.
The West Wing episode could have been written for Tony Blair, with one big difference. Unlike the President's, the Prime Minister's term is not fixed. That is his opportunity and everyone else's problem.
At his last news conference of 2005, a week ago, Blair pledged to go full steam ahead for the big ones, the reforms that could isolate him from his party. No one knows for how long Blair will go on, but it would be unwise to write him off before the Assembly election of May 2007 and even more foolish to waste the time between now and then. Preparing to give a new government new impetus, Gordon Brown is taking some different positions, but one of them won't be to shift radically the rules of our little game.
Where stands Northern Ireland in the order of priorities for 2006? Fairly high, with the fast forward button for a talks process about to be pressed, for better or worse. Old games have to be abandoned if we are ever to grow up politically.
It's long overdue for our politicians to stop screaming and stamping their tiny feet when Blair doesn't do exactly what they want. The old game of effecting to believe that everything is a conspiracy sown up with Gerry Adams is becoming juvenile. In 2005, the Government harshly exposed the parties' impotence over clearing the decks for talks and getting long overdue things done.
Over OTRs, the DUP failed in their boast to stop the run of concessions to Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein failed to stop the security forces being tagged on behind. Stormontgate laid bare a deeper moral corruption within Republicanism than its own supporters suspected.
The corruption of the system of law and policing is a great worry, extending beyond the OTRs row.
To the murderers of Robert McCartney and Thomas Devlin, or the gunmen following the Whiterock riots and the communities behind them, the deadline of April 1998 for cancelling prison sentences is patently unjust, if the Belfast Agreement means nothing or a new agreement fails to replace it.
Justice for individuals is proving nearly impossible to deliver while a political deal is the supposed aim, not the other way around. That's the lesson the parties must responsibly accept. Start working towards talks now and justice stands a chance.
Collective impotence was also exposed by the parties' failure to win a single major battle against the Government during the year over councils reform, water charges, higher rates and secondary schools admissions.
Abusing ministers for their undoubted shortcomings here is largely irrelevant. And don't think this rough handling hasn't been done deliberately.
Why else do you suppose ministers started blundering into a domestic agenda they had left dormant for years (and far too long)? If our parties don't like what Hain's doing, they know what they can do - take up the reins themselves.
In 2006, it will be right not to rush the fences during political talks but very wrong not to start the course. So let's not waste an election-free year. Make Leo McGarry's fiction real and go for it.
P.S. My MP of the year is Sammy Wilson, for winning Westminster's respect for his use of wit and humour to press home some well chosen cases."