'˜Martin and I were poles apart. Our paths should never have crossed. Life can be so unexpected'
Reverend David Latimer is the first to admit that a friendship between a former British Army chaplain and an ex-IRA leader is, at the very least, sure to raise a few eyebrows.
‘Unthinkable’ is how the Presbyterian minister describes his decade-long relationship with Martin McGuinness which is detailed in depth in a new book to be published in the next few weeks.
‘A Leap of Faith’ (Blackstaff Press), says David Latimer, chronicles all aspects of a friendship that developed over 10 years, including the often bitter backlash he suffered from within his own community.
The book is being published with the support of the McGuinness family and the former deputy first minister’s widow, Bernie, has written its foreword.
The story has also received a ringing endorsement from former US President Bill Clinton who says it underscores the “importance of building bridges between faiths if we are to truly share the future”.
Indeed, the closeness of the bond between the two men was underlined when Rev. Latimer delivered a moving eulogy at the Sinn Fein leader’s funeral in March last year.
He told the ‘Journal’ this week that, in spite of the trials and tribulations surrounding their friendship, he has no regrets whatsoever that “Martin was my dear, dear friend.”
“I can truthfully say that, had I my life to live over again, I would not resist reaching out to Martin... The man I travelled with on the often bumpy path to peace was a man few people knew much about. My personal journey with Martin enabled me progressively to recognise a man whose violent past had been superseded by his peaceful present. The Martin I got closely acquainted with was the Martin I wanted to share with the world.”
“Neither of us, in the beginning, had any thought whatsoever of a friendship evolving and, yet, that’s precisely what happened and for ten years Martin and I developed a genuinely warm human relationship that allowed us to get to know one another in a very special way.”
According to David Latimer, Martin McGuinness was “ordinary in so many different ways and, yet, he was also extraordinary”.
“It was this unique mix that marked him out as being special,” he says. “Imagine a former American President choosing to say of the boy who grew up in the Bogside, ‘he made honourable compromises and was strong enough to keep them and came to be trusted because his word was good’. Down at ground level, I also found that to be the case. He never broke his word and always delivered on his promises. Understandably, those who choose to focus solely on his past miss seeing the kind of person he became. Nobody else has been able to show us, quite like him, how it is possible for the extremes of Northern Ireland politics to work together.”
‘A Leap of Faith’ traces the relationship from its beginnings in 2007 when Rev. Latimer approached the Bogside man following the paint-bombing of his First Derry Presbyterian Church.
“Martin and I were poles apart,” he says. “In the normal course of events, our paths should never have crossed. Life, however, is often laced with the unexpected. It took paint bombs, of all things, splashing onto First Derry’s classical façade to bring the two of us together. We became such good friends who looked out for each other. I have never had a relationship with anyone to equal what Martin and I experienced. I am diminished by his death.”
“Our shared story invariably resonates with people, regardless of their age, colour, creed or culture. Of course, there are those who don’t want to hear the story. Be that as it may, the truth is, when you take the time to hear another person’s story, and to seriously listen to their story, you can no longer hate them and they cease to be your enemy.”
In ‘A Leap of Faith’, Rev. Latimer reveals that, while he expected a backlash from his own community when their friendship became public, nothing prepared him for the depth of the onslaught.
Some families left his congregation while loyal orders stopped using his church overlooking the Bogside as a venue for parades.
He was also either overtly shunned or “politely ignored” by some fellow members of the Protestant faiths.
He recalls a particularly “unprofessional” episode when he returned from serving as chaplain with the British Army in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
“Returning home, I found myself barred from preaching at the Homecoming Service and I was subjected to a series of interviews. All of this I chose to quietly absorb and not disclose. In the new book, I have chosen to speak out about the ‘shabby’ way I was treated by senior figures, both in the Army and the Church. In the interest of transparency, I have pulled no punches in revealing unfair attitudes and unhelpful behaviour. With the passage of time, I now consider the unprofessional way I was treated, both as an Army Chaplain and Christian Minister, to have been directly influenced by people’s prejudice and suspicion of Martin McGuinness. It is, therefore, my hope that lessons will be learned and better ways of handling difference discovered. I’m grateful none of these kicks knocked me off course; like Martin, I refused to be defeated and I was unwilling to deviate. Both of us knew the reward is in what is finished and not in what is started.”
In spite of this, Rev Latimer says he never regretted allowing the friendship to develop.
“I’ve learned from relating the remarkable story of my friendship with Martin that choosing to travel together is the only way. We can’t forever think only of ourselves. It is time to clasp hands and change history.”
So close was the bond between the two men that David Latimer still has Martin’s number on his mobile phone.
“Nor have I deleted the many text messages we sent to each other. Perhaps that’s because I want to believe he’s still with me and, in a very real sense, he is.”