‘A friendship that grew over the years and lasted to this present time’

The Rev David Latimer speaking with Martin McGuinness at the 45th anniversary service at the Rossville Street Bloody Sunday memorial back in January. DER0517GS013
The Rev David Latimer speaking with Martin McGuinness at the 45th anniversary service at the Rossville Street Bloody Sunday memorial back in January. DER0517GS013
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On paper, it shouldn’t have worked out.

Friendship between a Presbyterian church leader and a prominent republican would have seemed to many impossible, or at least highly unlikely, in a country emerging from conflict.

The Reverend David Latimer with Martin McGuinness at Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis  at Belfast's Waterfront Conference Centre in 2011

The Reverend David Latimer with Martin McGuinness at Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis at Belfast's Waterfront Conference Centre in 2011

But over the past decade, Martin McGuinness and Reverend David Latimer managed to forge a deep and abiding friendship, one that surprised many and shocked some.

Rev. Latimer last week visited Martin McGuinness in hospital for what would be their final meeting.

He recalls: “Martin was willing to see me just about a week ago in his ward and what a calm, serene glow there was around him. He was at peace and we held hands and I prayed and I placed him into the care of a God that loves all and rejects nobody. It was a lovely moment. It was just an example and illustration of the bond we had.”

Rev. Latimer described Mr. McGuinness as a “very good friend” and said his passing was for him and many others a “very sad day.”

Describing how they first became acquainted, he said: “I met him over 10 years ago because of paint bombs hitting the front of First Derry Presbyterian Church.”

The attacks on the city centre church by the city’s walls had been nothing knew- during the Troubles it was repeatedly targeted, and in 1983 partly destroyed in a bomb attack.

Back in the mid 2000s, the attacks had prompted Rev. Latimer to go on the airwaves on local radio, and during an interview he said that there was one person he believed could do something about the problem, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

“The pattern was that before that, we just kept our heads down,” he said.

“Within half an hour Sinn Fein were asking for a meeting and the next morning, on the steps of First Derry, the same steps on which the coffins of five members of RUC and UDR were carried during the Troubles, we met. That was not easy for our congregation.”

Rev. Latimer said that afterwards the paint attacks came to an end, while for the two men it heralded the beginning of personal friendship that came to have a wider symbolism in the context of the Peace Process and reconciliation.

“It signalled the beginning of a friendship that grew over the years and has lasted to this present time,” Rev. Latimer said. “On occasions, I invited him out to my home. At one point I turned to him and said, ‘I value our friendship’, and he said, ‘David, I treasure our friendship’.”

Rev. Latimer readily admits the friendship came at a cost. He lost members of his own congregation, he said, “because I got friendly with him.” There was also indignation from some quarters when Rev. Latimer attended and spoke at Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis in 2011 and praised Mr McGuinness as a “great leader of the modern time” - something he stands by today.

“Martin used to say, ‘David, you have taken more risks than I have,’ but Martin had taken risks. When you look at his life, he ploughed a furrow like no-one would have expected him to have done.”

Rev. Latimer said that together with Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness “opened a door” in what he said was another groundbreaking partnership and relationship that was “the stuff of films”.

He said this “injected a wee bit of hope into the despair we were living with,” at the time.

“It opened the door and allowed us to see the politics of reconciliation are way beyond anything we could have expected.”

Rev. Latimer said that while there has been some negative reactions to his own relationship with Martin McGuinness, there have also been those who have supported it.

He also said he believed Martin McGuinness was a Christian and the two prayed together on occasion.

“He bought me a lovely book of prayers. It was a treasured moment.”

Another moment is when the two men met recently at the Bloody Sunday commemoration service in the Bogside, in what was to be one of Mr McGuinness’ final public appearances.

Rev. Latimer said that the new generations across the divide were recognising Martin McGuinness’ contribution, and a fitting tribute to him would be if “the politics of recrimination were put to bed” while the flame of “partnership and working together” keeps burning bright.