Belfast Telegraph

Clergyman defends Sinn Fein speech

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

Presbyterian minister Reverend 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.

Mr Latimer, however, said he was inspired by the efforts of Mr McGuinness, plus 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.

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. 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."

In the aftermath of the speech, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice Jim Allister reached for the name of an historic Protestant traitor to brand Rev Latimer a "latter day Lundy".

Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster that he was aware of the criticism levelled at Rev Latimer, but added: "I have to say that I think the Protestant people, the Catholic people, the Dissenters, are miles ahead of some of the politicians.

"And I think that they would do well to sit up and take notice of the fact that the overwhelming majority of our people are hugely supportive of the peace process, and yes, of us doing what many people would consider to be 'steps too far' or 'risky things'. That's what peace-making is all about."

Mr Allister said of Rev Latimer's speech: "In describing McGuinness as a 'great leader' he trampled on the graves and memories of all the victims of his IRA."

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