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Row brews over plan to honour cleric

Unionists in Limavady today said a proposal to grant a former Presbyterian minister — forced out of the North West in the 1980s — the freedom of the borough could “re-open old wounds”.

The proposal to confer the honour on the Reverend David Armstrong and Father Kevin Mullen has been put forward by SDLP councillor Michael Coyle.

Unionist politicians today said they think the plan is ill-conceived and will provoke anger.

Mr Armstrong received death threats after offering a Christmas handshake to Catholic Fr Mullen in 1984.

The proposal is to be debated at a special council meeting in two weeks but it has already stoked strong opinions in unionist circles, with one councillor describing the motion as “ill-conceived.”

Former mayor Ulster Unionist councillor Edwin Stevenson said that Protestants in the town could be forgiven for “questioning the motives of the proposal”.

“This is something that unionists in the town will be very angry about when it comes before council,” he said.

United Unionist Coalition Councillor Leslie Cubitt added: “I just can’t understand why we will be debating this issue.

“The tension in the town that followed the unfortunate incident over 20 years ago almost split church relations completely and set community relations back by at least five years.

“There is a very real possibility that bringing it back to the public platform could open fresh wounds. Because of this, I would find it extremely difficult to back the proposal.”

DUP Councillor Alan Robinson described the proposal as “odd and unprecedented”.

“There is no future in the past and to that end I am not sure why this motion has been put forward,” he said. “It is difficult to comment on something that happened so many years ago.

“I was just 12-years-old at the time of incident but as a public representative in 2008, surely it would be more appropriate to discuss issues that face people in Limavady today.”

SDLP councillor Michael Coyle, who made the proposal, said that it would be the first time the freedom of the borough has been offered to anyone.

"Both Reverend Armstrong and Father Mullen were ahead of their time and I think it is right that they are recognised," he said.

Mr Armstrong retrained as an Anglican minister and is now based at a Church of Ireland parish in Co Cork.

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