Hamill’s Beat - Is it OK for clergy to support election rallies?

PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN. . . .Group pictured on the podium at Free Derry Corner last night as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness launched his campaign. From left, Fr. Michael Canny, Rev. David Latimer, Martin McGuinness and Stephen Kenny, Derry City manager. 0210JM08
PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN. . . .Group pictured on the podium at Free Derry Corner last night as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness launched his campaign. From left, Fr. Michael Canny, Rev. David Latimer, Martin McGuinness and Stephen Kenny, Derry City manager. 0210JM08

Life can be more than a little absurd. We’re not entirely rational creatures. Consider, for instance, many ceremonies, celebrations and sports and you can easily see elements of the ridiculous. Another example might be the attendance of a unionist at a Sinn Féin election rally.

In our society, perhaps the greatest absurdity of all is our exaggerated notion about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. (As if all religion, in itself, hasn’t enough elements of irrationality!) It’s a massive affront that we allowed ourselves to be exploited for so long by those who exaggerated the differences and played on our irrational fears. We compounded this by linking religion with national identity to make a sectarian blueprint for disaster.

For his willingness to make friendships across the divide I applaud the Rev David Latimer. He has shown goodwill in climbing out of the trenches which trap so many of us. He has courageously ventured out into the discomfort of no man’s land.

He was right to agree to speak at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in the Waterfront Hall. In the event, however, his extravagant language and overly theatrical gestures did seem a little over-the-top, but it was good that he accepted the invitation. Political parties should hear opposing views. Sinn Féin deserves credit for asking him.

Rev Latimer’s platform appearance at the election rally in the Bogside was a different matter entirely. Isn’t he a self-confessed unionist? Here, that element of absurdity pops up to nag us again. It’s one thing to address a party conference but isn’t it absurd for a unionist to appear to endorse a Sinn Féin election candidate? Election rallies aren’t the same as party meetings. Aren’t Rev Latimer’s fellow unionists confused enough already?

Of course, it would be natural for a Protestant who is a republican, although maybe not a clergyman, to speak at a Sinn Féin election meeting. The less religion is synonymous with politics, the better.

As a ‘constitutional’ republican of the Presbyterian variety I’d be more than happy for Rev Latimer to go further and support the case for breaking the link with England. I’d be delighted for all Protestants to re-discover the stance of their 18th century forefathers of the Society of United Irishmen. That would provide real leadership to those many unionists who are insecure and confused about their loyalty to a country that doesn’t actually want them.

That leaves the age-old question about the wisdom of a minister or priest becoming involved in party politics. It’s a difficult issue. On the one hand clergymen should live in the real world but, on the other hand, it’s good to keep daylight between church and state. Haven’t we had more than our fill of confusion between the two?

As a non-Catholic, it’s not for me to criticise Father Michael Canny for appearing on the Bogside platform with Rev Latimer. I have deep respect for both men but many Catholics have questioned the desirability of his appearance.

So, in a sense it’s good to see a Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest share a platform in the Bogside but in this particular case it was a very strange thing to happen. It serves no useful purpose if it confuses people. Giving leadership out of the trenches is good but leading people into no man’s land and then leaving them there isn’t. Why not press on bravely and take the journey to its logical conclusion?

Read more from Norman Hamill every Tuesday in the Journal