Minister saddened by unionist rejection

A Protestant clergyman forced out of a Co Derry town in the 1980s for extending the hand of friendship to a Catholic priest today said he was saddened unionist politicians have rejected a bid to put the controversy to rest.

Former Presbyterian minister Rev David Armstrong was forced to leave Limavady because of loyalist death threats and intimidation sparked by his cross-community work.

But this week, 25 years after the original controversy, unionist politicians in the area were condemned for voting down a motion to grant the freedom of the borough to the clergyman as a gesture of reconciliation.

Today Mr Armstrong, who retrained as an Anglican minister and is now a Church of Ireland parish priest in Co Cork, said he was saddened by the decision.

"It would have been lovely, particularly for my children, but probably one day my grandchildren," he said. "Maybe to be able to go into Limavady to be told by all and sundry, this is the town where your grandfather used to preach 'love your neighbour'."

Rev Armstrong was forced out of the town amid loyalist death threats and anger within his own Presbyterian church over his decision to offer a Christmas message of goodwill to Catholic counterpart Fr Kevin Mullan and to shake his hand.

A motion before Limavady Borough Council this week to welcome him back with the freedom of the borough put forward by SDLP was voted for 8-6, but fell because a two thirds majority was needed.

SDLP Assembly member John Dallat attacked the council declaring: "The unionists had the opportunity to lift the dark cloud of bigotry which has hung over Limavady for the last 25 years but yet again they failed and failed badly."

The MLA, who described Mr Armstrong as personal friend, said in their many conversations he had heard nothing but the word of God.

"While he and his family continue to carry the wounds of what happened all those years ago and continue to hurt and hurt badly, he is not a bitter person. On the contrary he a person who is very close to God, the God that loves everyone," said Mr Dallat.

Unionist politicians in the area said council time would be better spent discussing current affairs such as the economic crisis.

The controversy was raised at Stormont where Sinn Féin claimed the episode was evidence of lingering hard-line attitudes within elements of unionism.


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