Protestant clergyman makes Sinn Fein conference speech

A Protestant clergyman who became the first from Northern Ireland to address Sinn Fein’s annual conference has told his critics he wanted to help communities “move out of the past”.

Presbyterian minister the Rev David Latimer, who has struck up a friendship in Londonderry with Martin McGuinness, embraced the Sinn Fein politician at the event and hailed him as one of the “true great leaders of modern times”.

The church figure, who is renowned for his efforts to build bridges between Protestants and Catholics, received a rapturous reception from the republican audience, but he has faced attacks from hard-line unionist politicians who have cited the history of IRA violence.

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Mr Latimer, however, said he was inspired by the efforts of Mr McGuinness and successive Democratic Unionist leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, who have forged historic political alliances in the name of peace.

The Presbyterian said he also wanted to use his landmark speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Belfast’s waterfront Hall to call for a symbolic public day of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

“We see a miracle in place in Northern Ireland,” Mr Latimer said of the peace process.

Reflecting on his speech to republicans, he added: “I have to recognise there are people within my own community who probably would be seeing that I was amongst people on Friday night who were involved in the past.

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“But people change. We do not stay static and we have to recognise that where change has taken place we have to applaud that change because change is what we need.

“And one of the changes that I was looking for on Friday night was that ‘day of hope and transformation’, when everybody who has hurt everybody else will get a chance to say ‘look we acknowledge what we have done, we want to forgive and we want to be forgiven, for we have hurt and we have been hurt’.”

He added: “Therein lies the healing balm for the hurting people on my side and the hurting people on the nationalist side too, to have the wherewithal to begin the journey out of the past and into the future, with God’s help.”

But the clergyman was criticised before his speech by Democratic Unionist East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell who argued against the move.

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In the aftermath of the speech, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (Jim Allister branded Rev Latimer a “latter day Lundy”, evoking the name of an historic Protestant traitor.

Mr McGuinness said he did not know what the clergyman was going to say in his address.

“Whatever he would have said, he would have got a warm reception anyway, because I think people admire his courage in coming along,” Mr McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme.

In one of his own speeches to the Ard Fheis Mr McGuinness told delegates: “I see unionists as brothers and sisters to be loved and cherished as we continue to develop a genuine process of reconciliation on our journey to the New Republic.”