Optimism is a useful form of self defence. As brutal 2020 recedes from view, there is a genuine sense of light at the end of the tunnel. And it is not an oncoming train.

North and South we may have a chance, a real chance, to begin again.

First let's deal with Boris. For at least 30 years, probably for longer, he harboured the dream to become British Prime Minister. He hitched his ambition to what was once a rag-bag anti-EU minority. All were uncomfortable with the notion of the UK pooling its sovereignty to become part of a many times more powerful European alliance.

Boris energised that cohort and became their standard bearer. Dominic Cummings sharpened their sales pitch.

Boris made it to Downing Street - but now comes the hard part. Can he bring his apostles and the voters who backed him to the land he promised them? 

More than 40 years later, the memory remains of a holiday in France with three pals, bankrolled by our first batch of saved wages. The father of one of our quartet loaned us his station wagon. 

We booked the first-week-after-peak-season ferry to save on the outlay. After driving from Le Havre through the Massif Central we rolled into a windswept deathly quiet Sète the following day.  We had arrived in the south of France.

 "It’s like Bundoran in the winter," declared an underwhelmed Vincie.

Like us back then, Boris runs a real risk of discovering that the planning and the journey were a lot more fun than the destination. The next four years will test his mettle. 

On Wednesday during the sawn-off  Brexit debate in the House of Commons, he boasted that he had achieved a 'have your cake and eat it’ deal. 

There is a danger the agreement could eat him. 

There was such raw truth on view during those final hours before the Brexit deal was done on Christmas Eve.

In Brussels, a city full of exquisite but closed restaurants, a man on a bicycle with a Deliveroo bag on his back brought pizzas to the hungry negotiators as they tried to conclude the most sensitive trade arrangement in modern times.

Across the channel, equally hungry and near demented drivers had no option but to relieve themselves on the streets of Dover while the lines of stationery trucks stretched for kilometres.

In a very real way those horrible circumstances created by Covid made the notion of a No Deal Brexit too unpalatable to accept.  In the end both sides sued for peace.

Von der Leyen outshines Johnson

Part of Brand Boris is his ability to rev up the support base. With the untidy mop of hair and phrases flowing from his lips, he is a much more engaging performer than his predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, or indeed the current Labour leader, Keir Starmer. The half smile and glint in his eyes give Boris a Jack the Lad dimension.

But in the two-person contest that reached its climax on Christmas Eve, the British prime minister was a very obvious second best. In substance and in style Ursula von der Leyen beat him out the gate.

Boris, the Oxford graduate with an interest in classical studies, has a deserved reputation as an able orator.  But the figure in front of Union flags, selling his version of the EU-UK trade agreement, was left in the shade by the European Commission President.

Her address included references to Shakespeare and TS Elliot. Even if her spin doctors had a role in crafting the remarks, she was entirely comfortable with the concepts and the language.

In the years when I knew Boris Johnson as a Brussels-based journalist, French was the working language of the press room. When Berlin’s influence increased through EU enlargement, Germany never pushed to have its language replace French in that No 1 position. 

English is now the established medium for the conduct of EU business. The Brexiteers missed the irony in the spectacle of a German president of the European Commission out-articulating the British prime minister, in English, during the speeches that confirmed the terms of the UK’s divorce from the European Union.

It was such a telling example of the UK failing to make the connection between language and its soft power.

Von der Leyen has performed impressively during her first year as European Commission President. 

Elements of her back story are fascinating.  She was actually born in Brussels and her German father, Ernst Albrecht, was one of the early recruits to the European civil service.

He quickly progressed to serve as chef du cabinet to the German member of the European Commission, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1958.

In the mid 70s her father changed careers to become a significant Christian Democrat politician back in Germany. As a 19-year-old, Ursula was hurriedly shifted out of Lower Saxony because the Red Army faction was threatening to kidnap prominent figures and their families. 

In London. for over a year she lived under the pseudonym Rose Ladson, with Scotland Yard keeping a discreet, protective eye on her.

She enjoyed her forced exile in the vibrant city and although she enrolled at the London School of Economics, she later said she "lived more than studied" during that time.

When back in Germany, she switched from studying economics to medicine. She got a Masters in Public Health in 1990 – reflected in that moment when Dr Ursula insisted that Boris observe social distance advice as they  prepared for one of their joint press conferences in Brussels.

Her husband, Heiko, is also a physician with a family background that’s a German version of Cork’s merchant princes.

First elected to the Parliament of Lower Saxony in 2005, Von der Leyen benefited from having Angela Merkel as her consistent mentor and champion.

It was a significant gamble for the EU to appoint someone whose highest rank was Minister for Defence (in Berlin) to the role of European Commission President. It could not have happened without the heft of Germany (and the acquiescence of France). 

Last August in her lack of support for the ‘Golfgate-embroiled’ Irish member of the European Commission, Phil Hogan, she displayed a cold shoulder streak that bordered on ruthlessness.

On Brexit, she and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, both showed steel.

During the banks and property bubble debacle, Brussels slept soundly throughout Ireland’s painful implosion.

The Brexit drama was entirely different.  The EU intervened in word and in deed and Ireland was the beneficiary. 

Has Micheál Martin's luck changed?

If there were times during his 189 days as Taoiseach when Micheal Martin must have wondered if the gods were having a laugh at his expense, he now has reason to hope his luck has changed. 

He enjoyed his almost three-year period as minister for foreign affairs (2008-11) and the department regards him as "one of our own".  The role helped him learn about Ireland’s three key international relationships – with the UK, the EU, and the US.  With a Brexit deal in place, all three offer positive opportunities.

The EU-US trade agreement means Irish exporters will avoid major new problems accessing their nearest market. 

Ireland’s Common Travel Area relationship with the UK will be the only such arrangement involving an EU member state. London may see and value Ireland as its most obvious contact point and acquaintance in the club it has just vacated.  When travel is permitted again, keep an eye on the British royals and President Michael D Higgins.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, Brussels recognised Ireland’s likely vulnerability as the island behind the larger island. 

It seems logical that the EU will continue to be mindful of the deliberate choice Ireland made to remain part of the European family.

How Brussels acknowledges the trade deal’s impact on Ireland’s fishing sector will be one practical test.

The US factor is the third significant bounce for Ireland Inc and Micheál Martin. 

Imagine if the Covid vaccine had been confirmed in the days immediately before the White House contest. 

Make way for Donald Trump, term two, with Ian Paisley Jr in the market for an invitation to the swearing-in ceremony. 

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden is the most genuine Irish American president in history.

His interest in Ireland influenced the British climbdown over the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit negotiations.

Biden’s kinship with Ireland – the friend of a powerful friend factor – will continue to be a subtle but useful asset in interactions with London and Brussels. 

With the UK gone from the European Union, Ireland has an increased marketability as an English-speaking location for foreign direct investment, providing guaranteed EU market access.

2021 will be Micheal Martin’s final calendar year period as Taoiseach.  In the early stages of the new coalition, his relationship with Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader  Leo Varadkar was at times more civil war than civil. 

But it has settled and it is likely to be even more harmonious as the clock ticks towards a change of guard, the vaccine begins to beat the virus, and the economy starts to breathe again. 

Powersharing on trial

During the next 12 months the fourth green field has the potential to provide fascinating political theatre with long term consequences.

The live show will happen as Northern Ireland celebrates the centenary of its foundation.

Four years ago some very significant DUP politicians campaigned for Brexit, convinced the referendum would provide the opposite result.

There was something consistent  in the party’s eight Westminster MP’s this week voting against the deal struck by Boris Johnson, the prime minister they helped to oust Theresa May.

2021 may be a definitive year not just for First Minister Arlene Foster but for the party she leads.

The middle ground had little voice or impact during The Troubles. But it is now becoming a factor.

During 2020 Northern Ireland’s first same-sex marriage and its first same-sex religious wedding ceremony took place.

In the days immediately before Christmas the PSNI’s chief constable publicly apologised for the handling of the Black Lives Matter protests.

As the covid emergency continues, Health Minister Robin Swann’s handling of the health portfolio is an unexpected success story for the Ulster Unionist Party. 

Assisted by the most able media advisor in Stormont, David Gordon, Swann is a star performer in the job nobody wanted, even before the pandemic emergency. 

Just like Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, Swann has the potential to cultivate middle ground support in future elections. 

Foster turned 50 last July and is now beginning her sixth year as DUP leader. If she is to build momentum for the 2022 Assembly elections and lead her party into them, she must set out her stall over the next 12 months.

Brexit taught the DUP a harsh lesson about being sidelined. It will never acknowledge it but for the DUP  the  trade agreement represents a lucky escape.

As the only party that campaigned to leave the European Union, in a majority pro Remain Northern Ireland, it would have been in the firing line for any negative consequences to flow from a hard Brexit. 

If Northern Ireland is to harness the potential of its unique post-Brexit status rather than seek to change it, the DUP’s Diane Dodds will be a key figure.

She is a former MEP and before that an Assembly member who was often overshadowed on the political stage by her husband, Nigel. 

But as the Stormont Economy minister, she has the job and the circumstances to make her mark.  Unlike England, Scotland or Wales, Northern Ireland has access to EU as well as UK markets.

Choices. Choices.  Now the allure of the euro as well as half crown versus the crown. 

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader, is another who cannot avoid scrutiny during 2021.

She and the party are guaranteed to be criticised when the police investigation into the funeral of Bobby Storey is published. Expect a rumpus to flare briefly and then pass.

A more significant question is will she consistently perform in a way that justifies why Martin Mc Guinness picked her?  This month she will be four years in the role.

There was a time when some republicans were politicians by day and paramilitaries by night.

That era has passed and many of the unelected figures whose judgement once had weight are no longer an influential force. 

The command and control practices often attributed to Sinn Féin sometimes misrepresent the less elaborate reality. On occasions at Stormont there was no evidence of a Sinn Féin master plan.

In the year since power-sharing was restored, most of it dominated by the covid emergency, O’Neill did not nail down her position as the Martin McGuinness successor.

But neither did any of her colleagues, Finance Minister Conor Murphy included, emerge as an obvious alternative.

If the circumstances created by the pandemic emergency curtailed Sinn Féin’s access to on the  job experience at Stormont,  its seven Westminster MP’s are also restricted in their limited brief. 

The party’s abstentionist policy guarantees they are not seen or heard in the House of Commons chamber. 

One of its younger, prominent members, John Finucane the North Belfast MP, had the time to continue his work as a solicitor in a number of recent high profile legal cases.

While Sinn Féin is confined to the role of main opposition party in Dáil Éireann, Stormont is the only place where it has the opportunity to earn a reputation as an able participant in government.

It remains, at best, a work in progress. That reality will have a bearing on the plans and future achievements of Mary Lou Mc Donald. 

So 2021 really is a chance to begin again.

For the DUP and Sinn Fein, for all the Stormont and Dáil parties, for Ireland in its relationship with the UK, for Boris and the Brexiteers, and for the EU without them,

The awful 2020 that we gladly leave behind brought home how our shared humanity is still a valuable concept.

And optimism indeed remains a useful form of self-defence.