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Rev David Latimer Ard Fheis Address

9 September, 2011

Dr David Latimer 1st Derry Presbyterian Church

A Chairde, that’s Irish for friends and I begin intentionally with this word, because that’s what I firmly believe we are becoming. Martin you and I have been journeying together for the last five years and during that time we have become very firm friends, able to easily relax in each other’s company. While our interaction might understandably raise eyebrows amongst some within both our communities the reality is you and I regard ourselves to be brothers within the same human family, a worldwide diverse family, which despite all its flaws and imperfections is loved by God, the maker of everything that lives and moves.

Your invitation to me a Protestant minister 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? I’d like to think my co-religionists would emulate what you have done – not for cheap publicity – rather in recognition, despite our respective Dublin and London preferences, that our destiny’s are tied up together and our futures are bound together which, ladies and gentlemen, means that neither of us can continue to walk alone and the more we do together both as people on the street and as politicians on the hill, the better we will shape our shared future.

The seeds of division and enmity that have long characterised Catholic and Protestant relations were neither sown in 1968 or 1921 but during the 1609 Settlement of Ulster. Mistrust and bad feelings resulting from the colonisation of Ireland by Protestant settlers were followed by centuries of political and social segregation. Partitioning Ireland did little to ease sectarian mistrust and separateness between Protestants and Catholics left in the 6 counties as each community continued to be defined by its particular religious affiliation with little mixture between the two groups.

Little wonder this part of Ireland descended into a spiral of communal disorder and violence that was to last for decades. Victims of differences, extending back across trackless centuries that have isolated us from one another it is, with the benefit of historical hindsight, not surprising that our two communities should view each other with suspicion and regard one another as ‘the enemy.’

Locked into our respective comfort zones of isolation and poor relations we miserably failed to understand each other and to do anything about each other’s grievances. A 1993 report to the General Assembly makes for interesting reading – ‘the Presbyterian Church in Ireland shares the guilt of the majority community in Northern Ireland for tolerating the practise of discrimination in jobs, housing and voting rights which largely read to the Civil Rights Campaign of the late 1960’s. Was the penny, albeit 15 years into the troubles, finally starting to drop? Was my community admitting that signs of omission could be as damaging as sins of commission? I rather like the comment by Marcus Aruelius, the last of the 5 good emperors, who during the second century wrote. ‘A wrongdoer is often one who has left something undone – not always one who has done something’

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my considered opinion that by our silence and by our actions we have together contributed to perpetuating the divisions created long ago that progressively plunged us deeper into chaos and turmoil. Can I tell you all something – this analysis and sharing with you means there is no one Orange or Green who can lift an accusing finger and apportion blame because all of us have been part of the problem in some shape or form!!

But lets move the story forward – a drained population, located in the north of Ireland, longing waiting for a streak of light that one day might just break through the clouds and offer a glimmer of hope to sooth their sorrow and heal their wounds, couldn’t believe the news that broke on Tuesday 8th May 2007. This was the story of the most unlikely political marriage between Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin along with potent pictures of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness standing side by side as the newly elected First and Deputy First Ministers of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly.

In those epic scenes that none of us will ever forget Martin, you and I an lit a light of hope enabling Catholic, Protestants, Nationalist, Unionist, Republicans and Loyalists to envision the snow melting and Winter becoming Summer. No longer would either community need to drink from the cup of bitterness – no longer would it be necessary for either community to blame and endlessly complain about each other – no longer would anyone, British or Irish need to wallow in the valley of despair. Certainly not because two very different communities at long last could anticipate standing, as equals, on the warm threshold of a better and brighter new day.

Moving the story even further forward we can identify what only can be described as GROUND-BRAKING STRIDES bravely taken by the top layer of our government; well how else can you explain the First Minister’s decision to visit a Catholic Church and the attendance of the Deputy First Minister at the same church on the same day for the funeral mass of a murdered PSNI officer. On that very sad day GAA officials had bravely passed Constable Ronan Kerr’s coffin to PSNI officers.

Clearly history was being made and the narrative was being recorded, not on separate pages, but on the same page and that had never happened before. And we cannot overlook President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth standing side by side in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to honour those who dies fighting for Irish independence and remaining together for not just one national anthem but for both of them. Makes you think does it not that two very different ladies with different political allegiances were showing all of us that it is time to shake free the restricting chains of history.

During this weekend you will necessarily discuss a raft of issues that relate to people of all ages such as education, health, housing, inward investment, justice and social economy. While progress in each of these areas will be beneficial, it must be emphasised that no political party in the north can dismiss searching for that hitherto illusive ingredient, which is nothing more or nothing less than salve for the hurting people who live in every council area and in each Assembly constituency.

This means does it not, that despite all our progress and future prospects everything that will be achieved will never be fully appreciated or enjoyed by everyone given how we postpone turning to our dark and terrible past as a clergyman I only wish that I could provide the hurting people in both communities with a ready mix and stir formula that would relieve their pain and wipe away their tears. Regretfully, this is beyond the ability of any mortal individual to deliver, although it would be helpful for broken and bruised people to be informed that it is acceptable for bereaved Protestants to articulate a story of the past AND for bereaved Catholics also to articulate a story of the past. While both sets of stories will contain significant differences each must be recognised as a real and personal story, without and if or a but! Therefore, rather than airbrush personal stores of hurt there is a collective requirement for a spirit of maturity to be fostered whereby it will be possible for different stories relative to the past to be fairly acknowledged.

This could offer more than a modicum of comfort to our hurting people living in both Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, although I very much doubt it will be sufficient, which prompts me to suggest that OFMDFM explore devising a framework that would lead to a country-wide day for hope and transformation.

Such a solitary public event would provide a space and time for everyone involved in the conflict to acknowledge the pain each has inflicted. 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 the island of Ireland.

Our religious and political differences will prevail but compared to the benefits of peace they will be relatively trivial. Therefore for the sake of our children we will keep moving forward together. We must not let the peace die. We will not let the peace die. With almighty God’s help we all can have a distinguished future where we will work and grow in harmony and not just for a particular cause but for the good of all.


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