‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.
This ancient Biblical proverb aptly sums up the apprehension felt by many that the Stormont talks will produce such an inadequate result that they will completely blow away whatever hope and trust still remains in the political processes and the institutions of government.
This is indeed a critically important week for Northern Ireland, not only for political parties but for everyone who lives here.
The issues are many and complex, but the impact of there being no accommodation at all, or a very poor one, will simply intensify the pain being felt by individuals, families and communities.
Reaching an accommodation for the common good is what political leaders are called to deliver. Our democracy does not normally ask that difficult political decisions are taken by the electorate.
That is exactly what we elect our leaders to do. Failure to do so imperils us all.
An accommodation is needed so that clear and workable budgets can be set for our public services.
It is intolerable that massive in-year cuts are imposed with little or no warning, and that even the redistribution of unspent and available funds has not taken place for many months.
An accommodation is needed so that robust and properly resourced policies can be put in place to help deal with crises in health and social services.
It is also needed so that educational underachievement is properly tackled, skills are built, and hope restored to so many of our young people, especially those not in education, training or employment.
Indeed, working for the common good requires all parties to recognise that while providing appropriate levels of social security is vitally important, the most vulnerable in our society are also affected by cutbacks to key services.
Agreement on welfare reform would at least give the Executive discretion to determine how to most effectively spend the £100m currently paid in ‘fines’ to Westminster. For example, if that cash were to be injected into our hospitals and schools, there would many fewer crises to deal with there, and those on the margins would be treated much better than they currently are.
Certainly it is sensible negotiation to try to secure the best financial support package available from London / Dublin / Washington and the EU.
Yet there comes a time when the cost of waiting longer in the hope of receiving more money outweighs the cost of making good decisions on the basis of what will be put on the table this week. Now that such a pivotal moment has arrived, further delay will simply intensify the already acute pain.
Finally, the common good requires a speedy end to the damage caused to Northern Ireland by the continued existence of paramilitary organisations, as well as to the scourge of any associated criminal activity.
Do we really want to be a society famous for being able to live indefinitely with paramilitarism in whatever form?
It is a given that in any negotiations, those involved are unlikely to achieve everything they want. Nonetheless, any agreement must lay a foundation for the rebuilding of hope, confidence and trust, both amongst the parties and between them and the public. It must also demonstrate real progress.
To produce little or nothing of worth is surely unthinkable, as it is the common good of the people of Northern Ireland which is at stake.
• The Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian Moderator