Why Lord Mayor's lack of grace at City Hall gives Alliance Party food for thought
In a world where millions are starving and the major countries are desperately trying to prevent a nuclear war, it may seem unimportant that the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, chose not to have grace said at her installation dinner last week.
Instead there was the extraordinary spectacle of the new Presbyterian Moderator Dr Noble McNeely saying prayers at his table at the request of fellow guests .
It is difficult to imagine a literally more graceless start to the year by any Lord Mayor whose role it is to be inclusive, and it says a great deal about the sad state of politics, religion and culture in our province.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on her personally, as she is entitled to her views, however, the one way not to be inclusive is to break with a well-established tradition at City Hall which, to my knowledge, has not caused offence to anyone in the past.
So far, I have never heard anyone of a different faith to Christianity or of no particular faith making a complaint because a cleric gave thanks for food, at the start of a formal dinner.
In my travels in the Third World I have seen much hunger and suffering, and it is a haunting experience which few who have not been there can really appreciate.
Therefore a prayer about gratitude for food at a formal dinner has an honoured place in our public life, and should be respected as such.
Of course, a Lord Mayor can decide many important details about an installation dinner, including the guest list, the music and other matters, but it is not a private occasion such as a wedding meal or a birthday or retirement party.
A Lord Mayor, in office, is not a private person, and for 12 months he or she is required to represent all the people of the city. Therefore there is a protocol to be followed and this requires experience and common sense which on this occasion was missing.
Whether or not an individual Lord Mayor believes in Christianity is beside the point. Most of the greatest traditions of Western civilisation have been founded on Christianity and, as the Times columnist Lord Finkelstein, from the Jewish community, noted, in our modern post-Christian Britain, we ignore the rich and meaningful traditions of Christianity at our peril.
This is particularly true in Northern Ireland where a greater proportion of Christians attend church here than in any other part of the British Isles.
The best of Christianity is something worth cherishing, and those who still try to do so in a secular world deserve to be recognised and honoured for trying to do their best for our society.
These people were not honoured or respected at the installation dinner of our current Lord Mayor and Ms McAllister ought to have known better.
The Alliance Party was founded by my old friend the late Sir Oliver Napier (and others) to bring together people of tolerance and mutual respect in a divided society, and if he was alive today he would be appalled by an Alliance Lord Mayor who showed such a lack of tolerance for people who differ from her on their religious views.
All of which compounds my worry that the Alliance Party has lost its way in a miasma of trying to be ultra-modern and being all things to all people.
I am not homophobic but I was appalled by the Alliance Party's decision to require election candidates to support same-sex marriage.
This is a remarkable lack of toleration for individual conscience on such a delicate matter, and begs the question about the Alliance Party's claim of liberalism.
Equally controversial is the Alliance backing for the idea of installing a window in City Hall for gay, lesbian and transgender people who have made a contribution to the city. Why not a window for fat men, or slim ladies who have made such a contribution - and since when has it been an achievement to be gay or heterosexual?
Sadly, the Alliance Party has lost the run of itself. Ms McAllister's lack of grace at City Hall will give further food for thought to many people like me who used to vote Alliance but may have to re-think our choices.