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Martin McGuinness hailed 'a great leader' by Presbyterian minister

By Liam Clarke

The first Presbyterian minister to address a Sinn Fein party conference last night praised Martin McGuinness as one of the "great leaders of modern times".

On his arrival at the Waterfront Hall for the conference, the Rev David Latimer said: "I haven't come here for soundbites."

But he was undoubtedly the star turn of the first night of the first Sinn Fein ard fheis to be held in Northern Ireland.

Delegates asked to have their pictures taken with Mr Latimer on mobile phones and many shook hands with him. "I am among friends," he said, stressing that people could work together whatever view they took of the border.

Despite his protestation he did manage a few soundbites in the course of his speech. He was greeted with tumultuous applause when he borrowed the words of the Queen in Dublin to address delegates as "a chairde" (my friends).

Mr Latimer was greeted at the door of the conference by Mr McGuinness with whom he has formed a friendship. He told how the Deputy First Minster supported the opening of his Church on Londonderry's walls, overlooking the Bogside, and helped him secure a £1.6m grant for the historic building's refurbishment.

"I wonder what I am expected to do tonight for that," Mr Latimer quipped. He told delegates: "I don't think I would have the same welcome in the General Assembly in Belfast" - his own Church's annual meeting.

In his speech, Mr McGuinness said: "No doubt David will say things tonight which will challenge many of us in the hall. And likewise, David will hear things that will challenge his view of the future."

But there was little sign of edginess or challenge.

The clergyman said: "Martin, I see you as one of the true, great leaders of modern times.

"My prayer is that he will be empowered and envisioned to take us forward in the inclusive way he is committed to."

In a challenge to unionist parties, he said: "I hope he gets the support from within the other parties because it is together that we are going to build the future better and brighter."

He said he and Mr McGuinness were "now firm friends who were able to easily relax in each other's company".

He added: "You and I Martin regard ourselves to be brothers within the same human family, a worldwide diverse family which, despite all its flaws and imperfections, is loved by God."

Mr Latimer said that he had received more expressions of support from Presbyterians than criticism. He said that the moderator of Donegal and Derry had phoned him before he left home to tell him "we are praying for you".

* In a Belfast Telegraph survey, the full results of which will appear on Monday, Sinn Fein delegates were unanimous in saying they would like more Protestants to join their party.

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