Where politicians have failed, Church leaders need to show cost of conflict
The political climate of Northern Ireland today is barely recognisable to that of 1998 ... the environment of compromise that gave hope and impetus at the time of the Good Friday Agreement has dissipated."
These stark conclusions were contained in an article in the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday by the academic Graham Spencer and the Reverend Chris Hudson, the minister of All Souls Church in Belfast.
The conclusions do not make pleasant reading but, unfortunately, they are true.
During my 50-year career with this newspaper, I have shared the vision of community reconciliation that has been the hallmark of every Belfast Telegraph editor since the late John E Sayers.
We followed this path doggedly through thick and thin. As a reporter, senior feature writer, columnist and leader writer, I have been privileged to be part of that team.
Sadly, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the vision is being disfigured by a sectarianism that is deeper than ever.
The extremist DUP and Sinn Fein have edged out the comparative moderates, leaving us in a political wasteland.
This was illustrated most clearly in the recent head-count election. The only thing stopping the Secretary of State calling another election is that she might get an even worse result.
Every day television and radio producers fill their programmes with the same old faces saying the same old things until we, the viewers, want to scream. There is a curious masochism in Northern Ireland, with many of us continuing to soak up this punishment. God knows why.
Given this sombre and serious political background, in which the future of Northern Ireland itself is in peril, I wonder if there is anything more the Churches can do to help improve the situation. While they are harbingers of hope and reconciliation, I suspect that they feel as trapped as the rest of us.
At the start of the Troubles, many of the Churches were part of the problem, with their members worshipping a green or orange God, according to their political persuasion.
Even the death notices in the newspapers reflected this apartheid. Republican terrorists were commemorated with the phrase 'Mary, Mother of God pray for him', and Loyalist terrorists went to their graves with the blasphemous 'For God and Ulster'.
All this has changed, and the Churches have done a great deal to clean up their acts and reach across the religious divides.
Ecumenism is no longer such a dirty word, except in the rural backwoods or the leafy lanes of surburbia and narrow streets of the inner cities where they know no better.
Nowadays, every respectable cathedral and church has a shared ecumenical outreach programme, but there are still individuals and congregations who claim to be Christian while refusing to reach out to 'the other side'.
Church leaders issue well-meaning but generally futile statements for the politicians to do better, yet they continue to fail all of us.
Church-goers share the sign for peace and pray for an end to conflict, but then go out and vote for the hardline parties that have all but brought this place to its knees.
Perhaps the Churches and their leaders should try a new tack. Perhaps they should tell people, 'If you vote for extreme parties, you will get conflict, so don't blame God if your prayers for peace are not answered'.
Why don't they tell the politicians that they are a disgrace for failing to run Northern Ireland, instead of wheedling with them to be nicer to each other?
If Jesus Christ were here in person today, he would not be afraid to speak a few home truths in this land of the blind where the one-eyed man is king.
Maybe the Churches feel that they have done all they can to encourage people to reach across the divides, but they must go on doing that.
The sign of peace is the only way forward, and always was. Flag-waving slogans, and political bloodymindedness get us nowhere.