And we’re off! Easter Monday sounds the starting gun for this year’s marching season and in spite of the Stormont stalemate, hopefully the signs are accurate in that Northern Ireland can look forward to a quiet parades period, especially over the traditional Twelfth.
As a senior journalist with the News Letter in the 1980s, the Easter holidays meant me covering parades by the Junior Orange Order and Royal Black Institution. But as I chalk up 40 years in journalism this year, I firmly believe it is the Christian Churches who need to be nervous about the Easter period.
Behind the scenes negotiations have borne fruit between the Loyal Orders and nationalist residents’ groups concerning contentious parades, so 2018 has the potential to be - yet again - one of the quietest marching seasons, provided people retain cool heads.
With some Northern Ireland political parties championing the cause of a shadow Assembly at Stormont until full blown devolution is returned to the Province, the sabre rattlers among us must be wondering what new laws the Westminster Government could impose on Ulster under the banner of Direct Rule.
As far as the Loyal Orders are concerned, could Westminster give even more powers to the Parades Commission not just to alter contentious parade routes, or impose tough rulings on parades, but also scrap certain parades altogether - and even recommend new parade routes or locations given the demographic changes which have taken place in many areas across Northern Ireland?
But Direct Rule could bring a treble whammy for the Christian Churches so that Easter services may be about prayers concerning the impact of certain laws which are sure to come down the legislative track at Northern Ireland.
Firstly, the use of the Petition of Concern at Stormont will not be able to be used to block the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Westminster can pass legislation which will see marriage equality on the Northern Ireland statute books. The same situation will also apply to more liberal abortion legislation. Ironically, these two legal situations will be to the advantage of the DUP.
While the DUP holds a party position opposing both same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion legislation (unlike the Ulster Unionist Party which uses the individual conscience option with its elected representatives), the fact that Westminster will introduce such laws means that the DUP can blame the House of Commons when facing the electorate in future polls.
The majority of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians will adhere to Biblical values and will oppose both same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws, but it will be the votes in the House of Commons which will decide the implementation of such laws.
Could this seemingly secular drift in society have an impact on the selection of candidates - and election of councillors - in next year’s planned local government poll for the 11 super councils in Northern Ireland?
However, there is another piece of legislation which could have devastating consequences for the Christian community in Northern Ireland under Direction Rule - the introduction of more tougher defamation laws.
The defamation law in Northern Ireland and England diverged when Westminster passed the Defamation Act 2013 to reform the law. But the then Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont decided against adopting the new legislation automatically. Instead, a consultation took place which was completed in early 2015, but it is expected to be some time before the law is changed, especially since there has been no functioning Executive since January 2017.
Clearly, the current situation is that the reforms in the 2013 Act - which is operational in England and Wales - have no effect in Northern Ireland, and the Province continues to operate under the Defamation Act (Northern Ireland ) 1955 and the relevant parts of the Defamation Act 1996.
It would be logical to assume that as with same-sex marriage and liberal abortion laws, Direct Rule could mean the extension of the 2013 Act to Northern Ireland. This could have very serious consequences for what has become known in the Christian community as the ‘Judgemental Tubthumpers (JTs), or to use the common term, the church gossips.
The JTs should not be confused with preachers who make moral judgements based on Biblical verses. JTs, or church gossips, are people who point the accusing finger at people and openly criticise people without any legal or factual basis to support that criticism.
Should the 2013 Act become law in Northern Ireland, people on the receiving end of criticism from JTs could now be in a stronger legal position to begin court action against the JTs.
For many years, JTs got away with their often defamatory gossip about people because it was ‘not the done thing’ to take Christians to court. In practice, should the 2013 Act come on the Northern Ireland statute books, JTs will be forced to think very carefully about the legal evidence they have before they start to publicly criticise their fellow human beings.
Likewise, open air, or public, worship services could also come under the legislative hammer. Ever since the famous 1859 Revival, which saw many people in Ulster become ‘born again’ Christians, there has been a long history of the so-called street preachers in the Province.
Many of these street evangelists were dubbed ‘Hell fire preachers’ because they warned in their sermons about the Biblical consequences of not accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour (hence the term ‘saved’); that the ‘unsaved’ would spend eternity in Hell.
Given the growth of secularism in society and the increasing determination of militant atheists to ‘face down’ the Christian faith, the street evangelists could soon find themselves prosecuted under incitement laws.
Could a situation even emerge under the increasing so-called ‘snowflake society’, whereby people look for scenarios to be offended, that preachers in churches or meeting halls could find their sermons or Bible studies the subject of intense scrutiny and perhaps prosecution?
John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist.
John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.
Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter