Belfast Telegraph

Minister missed chance to give SF dose of reality

Rev David Latimer's speech to the Sinn Fein ard fheis reflected his courage and Presbyterian individualism, but he failed to convey victims' pain, says religion correspondent Alf McCreary

The Rev David Latimer's speech to the Sinn Fein ard fheis last Friday was a good example of a courageous visionary saying some of the right things in the wrong way and diluting the impact of his message by offending many Protestants, including those who lost loved ones during the Troubles.

He was right to accept the invitation to address the historic Sinn Fein meeting in Belfast. In doing so he showed initiative and a willingness to take risks.

By accepting the invitation he was bound to hurt the feelings of victims of the Troubles and their families, but that risk was worth taking if he was prepared to tell Sinn Fein members directly the anguish which had been caused to Protestants and many others by the republican armed struggle.

However the headlines told a different story.

He was quoted as hailing Martin McGuinness as "one of the true great leaders of modern times."

This is regarded by many Protestants inside and outside the Presbyterian Church as way over the top, and it is not surprising that Rev Latimer has been criticised by the families of the victims, including those killed in the Claudy bombings.

Martin McGuinness has indeed shown considerable political leadership, particularly in association with successive First Ministers Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, but to describe him as one of the "true great leaders of modern times" is highly offensive to many who would also associate McGuinness closely with IRA violence.

A number of complaints have been made to Presbyterian headquarters about Rev Latimer's remarks, but it is important to remember that the Presbyterian Church allows its ministers wide latitude, and that this was a personal speech during a rare opportunity to address a large and representative Sinn Fein audience.

However there is a feeling among many Presbyterians that Rev Latimer did not fully take the opportunity to impress upon the Sinn Fein members the depth of Protestant resentment at the suffering caused by the Provisional IRA.

He did talk about the need for "recognising we have been hurt by each other and that we all need to forgive," but this was lost in his overall presentation where he seemed more keen to impress his audience by his high-minded enthusiasm, rather than appear as a friendly but also a detached and critical Protestant minister who also was aware of the suffering of his own people.The Rev Latimer is a cleric with wide experience. He is a former Army chaplain, and as minister of the historic First Derry Presbyterian Church he works in a parish where he must be aware of the hurts of many of his own flock after decades of violence.

Presbyterians are particularly independently-minded and they are some of the most non-conforming of the non-conformists.

However, there is no doubt that many who supported Rev Latimer's initiative in speaking to Sinn Fein are dismayed that he appeared not to balance his praise for McGuinness with justified and stern criticism of republican violence.

There is also a need for Sinn Fein to realise the degree of hurt which physical-force republicanism has caused to their Protestant neighbours, and this is not evident in a current poll conducted by this newspaper.

When a sample of members at the ard fheis were asked if they would like to see more Protestants joining Sinn Fein, a whopping 97% said " Yes."

This showed an optimism bordering on naivete, given all that has happened in the past, and a stern dose of reality from the Rev Latimer in his keynote address would have done no harm.

On the positive side, there was much in Rev Latimer's speech which was commendable. He said that differing religious and political beliefs should be respected and should no longer be a source of suspicion.

He added: "They should not be sufficient to make one side fearful of the other. So with our prevailing political and religious beliefs these, compared to the benefits of peace, I think we have to acknowledge, make our differences relatively trivial."

In many ways this was a brave speech, and those who justifiably criticise Rev Latimer for his too-fulsome praise of Martin McGuinness should also acknowledge the importance of dialogue.

The fact that there is a close friendship between a Presbyterian minister in Derry and a leading republican and Sinn Fein activist like McGuinness marks a welcome progress in local community relations.

In this unfolding and remarkable peace process, everyone is on a journey of learning, and there are no clear guidelines.

Despite its reservations, the Protestant community should learn to respect the integrity and courage of a Protestant minister like David Latimer.

Nevertheless the Reverend Latimer, who seemed a little out of his depth in media and presentational terms during this entire affair, badly needs to learn the hard lesson that in Northern Ireland it is not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it.

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