Martin’s passing has left a massive gap in NI politics

Rev. David Latimer and Martin McGuinness.Rev. David Latimer and Martin McGuinness.
Rev. David Latimer and Martin McGuinness.
Rev. David Latimer remembers his late friend, Martin McGuinness, on what would have been his 71st birthday.

Towards the end of last year, Bernie McGuinness joined me to present a cheque for £10,000 to the NW Cancer Centre. This was the proceeds of my book, ‘A Leap of Faith’, which, in the words of President Bill Clinton, recounts the remarkable decade-long friendship I enjoyed with the late Martin McGuinness

Shortly after Christmas, I received a letter of acknowledgement from the chair of the health trust. Most notably, this letter included the line, “sadly our political world misses Martin’s sense of perspective and humanity.”

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Amazingly, the longer Martin continued as Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister, the wider the range of respect he attracted, including from sources well outside his natural support base. Four years following his untimely death, people from the Protestant/Unionist tradition still tell me, ‘David, if your friend was still around, things would be different!’

It is said that Bobby Kennedy was talked about by a generation. It wasn’t so much about what he did as how he made you feel. The same can be said of Martin McGuinness.

A year after his passing, I unexpectedly found myself in the company of someone who had treated Martin during his illness. During an impromptu conversation, this person spoke of Martin as a man, “with a special ability to interact with people in a way that embodied respect and interest; a man who valued each person regardless of who they were, what their background was or their status.”

Undeniably, it was his generosity of spirit, in tandem with his political nous, that took on a life of its own during protracted peace negotiations. Assuredly, this attracts attention to the man whose heart, by his own admission, “lies in the Bogside and with the people of Derry.”

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Unbelievably, Martin McGuinness and former arch enemy, Ian Paisley, along with others, found themselves sitting in the same room hammering out, at the forge of change, an unparalleled path to peace. Responding to news of Martin’s death in 2017, Tony Blair, former British Premier, described him as a ‘formidable peace maker’ and went on to say, ‘the Good Friday Agreement would never have been achieved without Martin’s leadership and courage.’

According to American author and speaker, John Maxwell, ‘a great leader’s courage to fulfil his vision comes from his passion, not from his position.’ I consider this to be a perfect fit for Martin McGuinness.

A number of years ago, I discovered his unrivalled support for a bespoke peace building initiative aspiring to mobilise young people. This involved me visiting, on several occasions, 425 schools/ colleges on both sides of the Irish border and engaging with pupils/students as agents for change. Martin’s support for this initiative was, for me, proof of his heart-felt desire for lasting change to grip Northern Ireland and beyond.

More than anything else, he wanted children to have a future very different from his past. Without his backing, at the highest levels, this initiative would never have reached the finishing tape. Thanks, largely to him, a galvanised metal peace tree today adorns Ebrington Square, encapsulating the hopes and dreams of the young.

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Understandably, Martin McGuinness evokes a mixed bag of views. Many from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds alike find it practically impossible to see him as anything other than an erstwhile IRA commander. His political astuteness, winsome personality and peace building efforts sadly amount to zero for this hurting segment of society.

Prior to meeting Martin for the very first time, back in 2006, to discuss paint bomb attacks at my church, I would have been in that very same boat. However, once you meet with someone, spend time in their company, listen to their story, get to know them and grow to like them, old grudges and hard attitudes progressively weaken, presenting fresh opportunities to break new ground and explore new avenues for peace.

This was the man who transformed circumstances for First Derry church from regular attacks to respectful acknowledgement of the Presbyterian heritage on the walls of this old city. Indeed, he had a very significant influence on accessing the funding to restore the church when it was found to need major work.

His decision to meet with the Queen, visit the Somme battlefields and attend a Northern Ireland football game at the European Championships in France were each potent examples of the ‘big steps’ he was prepared to take - while remaining firm in his republican beliefs - to make NI a better place for everyone, regardless of background or tradition.

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There is no escaping the fact that Martin McGuinness’ passing has left a huge gap in Northern Ireland politics. Not surprisingly, this has given rise to many people concluding the present political landscape would be markedly different were his steadying hand still on the Stormont tiller.

At the close of his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln said, “with malice toward none and charity for all, let us strive to finish the work we are in and to do all that may achieve a just and lasting peace.”

I believe we owe that to Martin McGuinness and to all our people in Northern Ireland.

○ Rev. David Latimer is retired minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church.