Clergyman defends speech to Sinn Féin ard fheis

A Protestant clergyman who became the first from the North to address Sinn Féin's ard fheis has today told critics he wanted to help communities "move out of the past".

A Protestant clergyman who became the first from the North to address Sinn Féin's ard fheis has today told critics he wanted to help communities "move out of the past".

Presbyterian minister Reverend David Latimer, who has struck up a friendship in Derry with Martin McGuinness, embraced the Sinn Féin politician at the event and hailed him as one of the "true great leaders of modern times".

The church figure, who is renowned for his efforts to build bridges between Protestants and Catholics, received a rapturous reception from the republican audience, but he has faced attacks from hard-line unionist politicians who have cited the history of IRA violence.

Mr Latimer, however, said he was inspired by the efforts of Mr McGuinness, plus successive Democratic Unionist leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, who have forged historic political alliances in the name of peace.

The Presbyterian said he also wanted to use his landmark speech at the Sinn Fáin ard fheis in Belfast's waterfront Hall to call for a symbolic public day of reconciliation in the North.

"We see a miracle in place in Northern Ireland," Rev Latimer said of the peace process.

Reflecting on his speech to republicans, he added: "I have to recognise there are people within my own community who probably would be seeing that I was amongst people on Friday night who were involved in the past.

"But people change. We do not stay static and we have to recognise that where change has taken place we have to applaud that change because change is what we need.

"And one of the changes that I was looking for on Friday night was that 'day of hope and transformation', when everybody who has hurt everybody else will get a chance to say 'look we acknowledge what we have done, we want to forgive and we want to be forgiven, for we have hurt and we have been hurt'."

He added: "Therein lies the healing balm for the hurting people on my side and the hurting people on the nationalist side too, to have the wherewithal to begin the journey out of the past and into the future, with God's help."

But the clergyman was criticised before his speech by Democratic Unionist East Derry MP Gregory Campbell who argued against the move.

In the aftermath of the speech, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Jim Allister reached for the name of an historic Protestant traitor to brand Rev Latimer a "latter day Lundy".

Mr McGuinness said he did not know what the clergyman was going to say in his address.

"Whatever he would have said, he would have got a warm reception anyway, because I think people admire his courage in coming along," Mr McGuinness told BBC Radio Ulster's 'Sunday Sequence' programme.

The Stormont deputy First Minister said he was aware of the criticism levelled at Rev Latimer, but added: "I have to say that I think the Protestant people, the Catholic people, the Dissenters, are miles ahead of some of the politicians.

"And I think that they would do well to sit-up and take notice of the fact that the overwhelming majority of our people are hugely supportive of the peace process, and yes, of us doing what many people would consider to be 'steps too far' or 'risky things'. That's what peace-making is all about."

In one of his own speeches to the ard fheis, Mr McGuinness told delegates: "I see unionists as brothers and sisters to be loved and cherished as we continue to develop a genuine process of reconciliation on our journey to the New Republic."

His words were echoed in the keynote address to the event by party leader Gerry Adams who said his movement's prime aim of Irish unity required "reaching out" to unionists.

He told his supporters: "This is a personal priority for me and a political priority for Sinn Féin."

But TUV leader Jim Allister said of Rev Latimer's speech: "In describing McGuinness as a 'great leader' he trampled on the graves and memories of all the victims of his IRA."

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