|Jim O'Hara of the Irish Cultural Centre, with David Latimer and Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion.|
by Theo Russell
One of the most difficult and drawn-out aspects of the peace process in Ireland has been that of reconciliation between communities which have suffered divisions dating back centuries – to the 16th century plantations - and which were made even worse by partition in 1921.
From this side of the Irish Sea it certainly appears that most of the efforts to develop reconciliation have come from the nationalist rather than the Unionist side, and particularly from Sinn Fein.
But on rare occasions public figures from the Protestant-Unionist community have emerged who have risked denunciation and attacks by developing ties with Sinn Fein.
The Rev David Latimer, from First Derry Presbyterian Church, was at the Irish Centre in Hammersmith, West London this month to talk about his new book, A Leap of Faith: How Martin McGuinness and I Worked Together for Peace, which describes his strong friendship with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Latimer first met McGuinness, who was deputy first minister of Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2017 (although in reality joint first minister), over 10 years ago, when he asked McGuinness for help in stopping attacks on his church, situated on the edge of the nationalist Bogside in Derry.
It was the start of a lasting friendship which led to Latimer addressing Sinn Fein’s 2011 Ard Fheis (conference) in Belfast, where he received a rapturous welcome, and taking part in rallies supporting McGuinness’s bid for the Irish presidency.
He also spoke at McGuinness’s funeral in 2017, describing him as “one of the great leaders of modern times”.
McGuinness in turn addressed the congregation of First Derry Presbyterian Church after refurbishment work on the building, after he had arranged for a £1.6m grant from Derry City Council to pay for repairs to the church. Such an event would have been unthinkable not only 10 years before, but 100 years ago.
When Latimer first arrived at the church in 1983, in the midst of the 1968-1998 conflict, there was bulletproof glass in the windows and two of its doors were bricked up.
At that time his congregation included members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment, hated by the nationalist community for their allegiance to the dominant Unionist hegemony, which was backed by the full weight of British imperialism.
During the 1968-1994 conflict nine members of the security forces in Latimer’s congregation were killed. The many such losses on both sides of the conflict are far from resolved and still generate considerable bitterness.
Latimer took considerable risks by befriending McGuinness and working for reconciliation, and hard-line Unionists accused him of siding with “the enemy with blood on their hands”. His church lost around 30 families due to the friendship. But today, Lambert says, “leading members of Derry’s Protestant community admit to being “ashamed at how we used to run this city”.
The huge advances made in Derry since 1998 were highlighted by Elisha McCallion, past mayor of Derry City and successor to McGuiness’s Westminster seat, who also spoke at the launch.
McCallion said Latimer’s experience “shows that even a minority Protestant community is treated with as much respect as any other community”.
But she also pointed out that major elements of the St Andrews and Good Friday agreements, on Irish language rights, community equality and finding resolution for victims of the conflict remain to be implemented, “a situation neither of the governments in London or Dublin seem very bothered about”.
“The Irish government could do a lot more to develop those relations than they have in the past”.
Reconciliation between the communities has been the central plank of Sinn Fein’s policies since 1998, and has brought about many positive changes. But unfortunately the diehards in the Unionist community - including DUP leader Arlene Foster - continue to inhabit a past in which every Sinn Fein member is still an “IRA terrorist”.
As former New Communist Party leader Eric Trevett pointed out as the peace process dragged on, "it is always far harder for those with power to give it up than for those who were dominated," and that is certainly being proved in the north of Ireland today.
But despite the antediluvian attitudes of the bible-bashing DUP, enormous strides towards reconciliation have been made right under their feet. The times are moving on despite the dwindling numbers of Loyalist bigots.
For those who recall the tortuous negotiations the years before 1998, time and again the collapse of the peace process looked inevitable. But the Good Friday settlement went to gain mass support on both sides of the partition border, now known in Ireland as "the British border in Ireland". That mass support is still there 21 years on.
Latimer did indeed have to pay a price for his friendship with McGuinness, but like the leaders of Sinn Féin he risked a far worse fate. No wonder his efforts have won him so much respect from the republican and nationalist communities.