I'm no traitor, says Sinn Fein row cleric
The Presbyterian leader who made history last week when he became the first Protestant minister to speak at a Sinn Fein ard fheis has hit back at his unionist critics, telling them: “I am no traitor — and I would do it again.”
The Rev David Latimer also revealed that he consulted a member of his congregation whose brother was in the security forces and shot dead before accepting the controversial invitation.
The First Derry Presbyterian minister said: “Here is a man who was directly hurt and would be in a position to say: ‘David, stop — you are tramping on my brother's grave’. But this man said to me: ‘Maybe if 50 years ago someone had done what you are doing then all the people we have lost would still be living’.”
But he also revealed how one woman in his pews whose father had been killed had felt unhappy with his speech.
“I did go and visit the woman, who was hurt. We talked, and at the end of our talk I asked her if we could say the Lord's Prayer. She said yes and we prayed some more and she hugged me and I found that a very moving thing,” he said.
Among Mr Latimer’s harshest critics were the DUP’s East Londonderry MP Gregory Campell and TUV leader Jim Allister, who called him a traitor.
But the former Army chaplain hit back, saying: “I do not consider myself a traitor. I have done service for my country in Afghanistan during a period which was considered to be the most brutal time for the British Army since the Second World War.
“I have stood alongside the body bags and have been in the operating theatres seeing the evils of war, watching young men's limbs being amputated, so I have my loyalty unashamedly to London and to Britain. And within that I am also very happy to be Protestant and unionist — but maybe the most important label is that I am Christian.”
As the dust begins to settle, the Rev Latimer has given a full, frank — and at times emotional interview — to the Belfast Telegraph at his church overlooking the Bogside in Derry to explain the reasoning behind his actions.
‘I would do it again and I wouldn’t change anything’
Rev David Latimer tells Donna Deeney how he believes his Sinn Fein ard fheis address was a stepping stone to a brighter future
Q Why did you accept the invitation to speak at Sinn Fein’s conference?
A My decision to say yes came directly from a friendship between Martin McGuinness and myself which started in 1996 when I went on the radio to inform everybody that there was only one person who could stop the paint bomb attacks on my church here. Straight away after the interview I had a call from someone who said Martin would like to meet with me. Within half an hour he was standing on the steps of the church, where probably about seven of the congregation had their funerals — and all because they wore the uniform of a UDR officer or a RUC officer.
We came into the church and I was nervous, but even in those early nervous days I was struck by the humanity of the man. That connected us even then and made the whole thing a little less intimidating for me, but after that first meeting the paint bombs stopped.
Q You mentioned the seven members of your congregation who died serving in the UDR and RUC. Were they on your mind when you first met Martin McGuinness, knowing how high-ranking a member of the IRA in Derry he was?
A When I was standing with him I knew I was in the presence of a man who in the past was involved in something different. I knew there would be people in the Church ... who would think that he was someone who brought about the deaths of much-loved people.
Q Did you not feel that you were betraying the feelings of victims of IRA violence?
A There is a man in my church who lost his brother who was in the security forces and he was shot dead coming home. I would tend to use this gentleman as a filter and I went to him and asked him: what do you think about this invitation?
Here is a man who was directly hurt and would be in a position to say: “David, stop — you are tramping on my brother's grave.”
But this man said to me: “Maybe if 50 years ago someone had done what you are doing then all the people we have lost would still be living.
“But what I want more than anything else is for you to do what you are doing. You have my support because it will prevent what we have lived through from taking place again.”
Q Why did you describe Martin McGuinness as a great leader?
A That took people by surprise. I was just acknowledging a man I consider to be one of the true leaders of modern times. I said modern because it was my way of acknowledging that it was from the moment Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness choose to do what can only be described as a 180 degree turn, and regardless of their past had these two men not done what they did when they did it our country would still have stories in the news of bombs and bullets and pain and we have been spared that. Is that not something to applaud?
Q After the high of Friday, you had to come back here to First Derry Presbyterian Church. What was that like?
A I did have my concerns. Before I got into the pulpit, there was a lady whose father had been shot and badly injured and later been killed and she came to see me and was very unhappy but I said to her, ‘I'll come and talk to you after Church’.
On the way out people hugged me and one man who is a serving officer whispered in my ear, “David, blessed are the peacemakers, keep up the good work”. That evening I did go and visit the woman who was hurt and I understand. We talked and at the end of our talk, I asked her if we could say the Lord's Prayer and she said yes and we prayed some more and she hugged me.
Q What kind of a reaction did you get from the wider Protestant and unionist community?
A There has been a mixed reaction to my attendance but I have taken comfort and |inspiration from the fact that about 70% of the letters, texts, emails and calls I have received from both communities have been supportive and many came from right across the country.
One of those messages was from a Presbyterian Minister in Belfast who congratulated me and he said he would not have had the courage to do what I did. Time will be your judge and you will be shown in a favourable light.
But another man sent me an email which read, “David Latimer, not in my name, shame on you”. there was a Catholic lady who was not happy with me because she had been hurt by what had happened within her family and would attribute that to the IRA.
Q Have you been hurt by the angry reaction this has caused among many including politicians like Gregory Campbell and Jim Allister, who called you a traitor and a Lundy?
A No because I do not consider my self a traitor, I have done service for my country in Afghanistan during a period which was considered to be the most brutal time for the British Army since the Second World War.
I have stood alongside the body-bags and have been in the operating theatres seeing the evil of war watching young men's limbs being amputated, so I have my loyalty unashamedly to London and to Britain and within that I am also very happy to be Protestant and unionist. But maybe the most important label is that I am Christian.
Q Do you regret the appearance?
A I would do it again and I wouldn't change anything. If you remember Ian Paisley, prior to working with Sinn Fein, his style was hard but that didn't bring his party and Sinn Fein to the negotiating table.
It took a change in attitude and a change in heart that brought former enemies to bury the hatchet with the intention of never bringing it up again.
Q What do you believe was achieved?
A I think that I took a stepping stone to the future which I hope will be followed by others taking a stepping stone. I think a door has been opened and that there is a receptive audience and we have to chart a course that we have to follow to go step by step towards a Day of Hope. If we can get to that then we will go beyond that and together we can ensure our children will not experience what we have experienced in our lifetime.