Man of peace

Rev. David Latimer. (0710PG21)
Rev. David Latimer. (0710PG21)

David Latimer has no regrets about any of his actions of the past couple of years.

In fact, given the chance, the would do it all over again.

�Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland - 9th September 2011 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye. Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. The Republican conference is usually held in Dublin and for the first time in its history it has come north. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness presents the guest speaker, First Derry Presbyterian Minister Rev David Latimer, to the conference.

�Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland - 9th September 2011 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye. Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. The Republican conference is usually held in Dublin and for the first time in its history it has come north. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness presents the guest speaker, First Derry Presbyterian Minister Rev David Latimer, to the conference.

His friendship with Martin McGuinness, and endorsement for his candidacy for President of the Republic of Ireland, has earned him criticism in some quarters.

But he firmly believes that the way forward is to bridge the divide between the nationalist and unionist communities and that as minister of First Derry Presbyterian on the city’s walls, he is the right man for the job.

“I have no regrets,” he says.

“I would do it all over again and I would change nothing.

“People have said David Latimer is being used by Sinn Fein, he is a puppet. I must imagine they feel they know David Latimer better than I do. I know myself better than anyone else who wants to have a comment about what I am doing.

“I can quite categorically say that I am in nobody’s back pocket and that I am not manipulated or controlled by anybody. I am taking my instructions from God and I really do believe that he has opened a door and if we do not push that door a little bit further then we will not move forward together and we will continue to be apart and continue to stay in our comfort zones and that only allows for what has happened in the past to take place again sometime in the future and that is not what we want,”

His friendship with Martin McGuinness - which led to his decision to address the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Belfast last month - has brought condemnation from some unionists and seen him labelled a latter-day Lundy.

He says he and McGuinness now pray together and have made a spiritual connection.

“Martin McGuinness and I are very good friends and why should I refrain from embracing him in public if I do it in private within my own house?

“One of the unhelpful hypocrisies within our little province is that our politicians we are told can be so friendly behind closed doors but on the television screens they have a different image they want to promote. I think the time has come when we have to examine the words we are using and the body language because what people see on TV is what they believe and it affects in turn how they react. So if we see a frostiness in the public utterances of politicians is it any wonder that we are going to have that copied on our streets?

“What I was doing was giving recognition to a man who I know has changed beyond all recognition and that was very important.”

“I have shared in prayer with Martin McGuinness. And so not only are we connected through our humanity, there appears to be a spiritual chemistry that links us and we both get help from talking to each other. That is something that I think we both appreciate.”

First Derry was far from an attractive proposition when Reverend Latimer arrived there from Co Down in 1988.

Its position overlooking the Bogside meant it needed to be surrounded by security fencing and congregation numbers were dwindling.

“It was what they called an old man’s church, somewhere a minister might go to see out the last few years of his career,” Rev Latimer recalls. But I still felt I was right to come here.

“After the Good Friday Agreement things started to improve and we were able to take down a lot of the security wrapping from the building.

“When I look at what’s happening currently and the opportunities to build bridges and to connect the two communities in however small measures, it leads me to see that the almighty had a reason in making First Derry attractive when it looked anything but attractive.

“I now can see some little evidence that coming to the city was the right thing to do.”

As well as being Minister of First Derry Presbyterian, Rev Latimer has been chaplain of a medical unit of the Territorial Army for the past 25 years.

And that was to have life-changing implications when in 2008 the unit was called up to serve in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

“Nobody had ever thought that a TA unit would ever be called to go to a real theatre of conflict,” he recalls.

“But in 2008 we were told it was our turn to man the medical facility in Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.

“It was the busiest British military operation since the Second World War and I have to say it was scary.

“The only bodies I had ever seen were in hospitals or at home after a nurse or an undertaker had seen them.

“There though body bags would arrive with possibly only half a body in them, or with an arm or a leg sitting on top.

“I was in the operating theatre. I wince at simple surgical procedures, and yet I was alongside real people in the theatre while surgeons were removing arms, major organs and creating a chest cavity with blood flowing everywhere.

“On one occasion a surgeon had the heart of a 27-year-old soldier in his hand massaging it while they tried to find out why all the blood they were pumping into him was rolling out onto the floor.

“I was asked to say something, to pray and as I was about to, he said he was stabilising. I said I wanted to still say something so I said, ‘Gentlemen, I want to thank you in God’s name for bringing this young back from the very edge of the grave’.

“The surgeon still had this man’s heart in his hand and he said ‘David, thanks very much’ and they continued with their work.

“So people who say to me, David Latimer what are you doing – you don’t understand what happened with people being hurt. And I say to them, you know what, I do understand because I have been where it has been bloody and where there has been death and have stood alongside those awful evil outcomes of man’s inhumanity to man and have struggled with words when I have been asked to say something.

“Those moments when I reflect on them have had a life changing impact upon me and I think because of what I experienced in Afghanistan has brought me back with a mission to try and ensure that there will never be any more of that in our country and that our children will be able to grow up within a normal society and to get along with either their Catholic or their Protestant neighbours and enjoy a more stable, just and peaceful existence..”

On Thursday Rev Latimer hosted Irish President Mary McAleese at First Derry for the first in a series of discussions at the church aimed at bringing the two communities closer together.

Next month local man Richard Moore and the British soldier Charles who blinded him as a child, will be the main guests.

It is hugely important to Rev Latimer that First Derry be seen as and used as a ‘bridge’ to promote understanding.

And the church itself played a large part in building his friendship with Martin McGuinness which has captured the public imagination.

He appealed on the radio to McGuinness when youths from the Bogside and Brandywell paint-bombed the church five years ago.

“Within 20 minutes his office was in touch with me,” he said. “I met him and the thing that a nervous David Latimer discovered in the company of Martin McGuinness over a cup of tea and a scone was a common humanity and that had a very powerful initial impact and made a great impression on me and I think on him.”

McGuinness was one of the guests of honour at the re-opening of First Derry earlier this year and then Rev Latimer made history when he addressed the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Belfast and then endorsed his candidacy for the Irish presidency.

“I think Martin has the experience, he has the people skills, he has the ability, and he has the leadership qualities that we have observed have been sufficient for him to bring people away from the violence of the past into the peacefulness of the present,” he said.

“Not everybody could have achieved that. I look at the way he has grown into that job and I have said to him on occasions: “Martin you were born for this.” I firmly believe that.

“While I cannot influence and would not wish to influence the outcome of an election in the 26 Counties, nevertheless I see him amongst the candidates as a person who would make a President that the people would increasingly discover as a person who would relate not just to the higher echelons of society but to people on all levels.”