Northern Ireland

Presbyterian minister calls McGuinness 'great leader'

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Media captionMark Devenport says Martin McGuinness and Reverend David Latimer have become friends through their work in Londonderry

Martin McGuinness is "one of the great leaders of modern times", the first Presbyterian minister speaking at Sinn Fein's annual conference has said.

The ard fheis, at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, is the first one to be held north of the Irish border.

Addressing delegates, the Reverend David Latimer said differing religious and political beliefs should no longer be a source of suspicion.

The two men have become friends through their community work in Londonderry.

"Martin, you and I have been journeying together for the last five years, and in that time we have become very firm friends able to relax in each other's company," said the First Derry Presbyterian clergyman.

"While our interaction might understandably raise eyebrows amongst some within our communities, the reality is you and I regard ourselves to be brothers within the same human frailty.

"Your invitation to me is forward looking and timely - is it possible that the Democratic Unionists could see their way to invite a Catholic priest to address their party conference this year or next?"

The DUP MP for East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell, had criticised Rev Latimer's decision to accept the invitation to speak at the ard fheis.

And following his address, the Londonderry clergyman was called a "latter day Lundy" by the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister.

Rev Latimer said there were no objections within his congregation to him accepting the offer.

"Courageous decision"

When he introduced the Presbyterian minister, Mr McGuinness praised his willingness to speak to republicans.

"In my experience of recent years, many within the unionist community are up for a journey of reconciliation and dialogue," said the deputy first minister.

"Tonight one of those, the Rev David Latimer from First Derry Presbyterian church, has demonstrated that by his courageous decision to accept our invitation to address this ard fheis."

Rev Latimer also told Sinn Fein members that he would eventually like to see a symbolic public day of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

He said the one-off event, which would see mutual recognition of wrongdoing, could be staged across all of Ireland.

"Such a solitary and public event would, I believe, provide space and time for everybody involved in the conflict to acknowledge the pain that each has inflicted," he said.

"Recognising we have hurt each other and that we have been hurt by each other and that we all need to forgive would undeniably be liberating for all 32 counties, I think, of this island."

North Antrim MLA Mr Allister was heavily critical of Rev Latimer.

"In describing McGuinness as a great leader he trampled on the graves and memories of all the victims of the IRA.

"This latter day Lundy may see McGuinness as 'one of the great leaders of modern times', I see him as one of the most unrepentant terrorist godfathers of modern times."

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