Presbyterian minister welcomed with a cup of tea at dissident protest camp at Free Derry Corner

Rev David Latimer - image from BBC Radio Foyle websitePresbyterian ministers can’t seem to keep out of the news this week. Suzanne Breen reports in the Sunday World that Rev David Latimer (minister of the recently refurbished First Derry congregation, and a Territorial Army chaplain) made an unannounced visit to a dissident republican protest camp at Free Derry Corner over the weekend.

In a ground-breaking step, the Rev David Latimer visited dissidents holding a 48-hour camp-out in the Bogside in support of republican prisoners in Maghaberry. The Presbyterian minister, who has served as a British Army chaplain, had a “very positive and friendly conversation” with leading Derry republican Gary Donnelly.

Latimer said the horrific scenes he’d witnessed with the army in war-torn Afghanistan meant he was determined to work for peace and reconciliation at home. “Some people will call me a traitor for talking to dissident republicans,” the clergyman told Sunday World. “But no community and no group in this city should be ignored.”

“We may have different political viewpoints but we are all human and we are all equal. I treated the republicans I met with respect and I was well received. God rejects no-one and, as a Christian minister, neither do I.”

He got a warm welcome …

“They offered me a cup of tea and then a coat to keep me warm. It was a kind gesture. They couldn’t have been more courteous. It was a chance for me to talk and listen to them. We must grasp every opportunity to understand each other if we’re to learn to live in harmony. We all want peace and fairness in our country. For too long, there was prejudice, suspicion and injustice.”

Senior dissident republic Gary Donnelly of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement – which Breen says “security sources claim is the Real IRA’s political wing” – spoke positively about the visit.

“It was a welcome surprise that a Protestant minister visited our camp especially when Catholic clergy didn’t bother to turn up. I’d a very positive and friendly conversation with David Latimer. I told him my grandmother was a Protestant. And the minister wasn’t the only Protestant at Free Derry Corner that day – one of our members from Sligo who was taking part in the protest is a Protestant.”

With the Presbyterian General Assembly decamping from its Belfast headquarters and heading up to the north west for the first week in June 2013, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if there was a moderator from Derry and Donegal Presbytery to go along with the new venue, particularly one who can speak confidently about difficult issues:

… he insisted his actions were in keeping with his religious beliefs: “In his day, Christ turned the status quo on its head. He did what wasn’t the norm. He talked to people others ignored. It’s the right thing to do.”

All in all, with this story as well as one about the two Sinn Fein representatives jetting off to New York (to promote a sporting event that their party won’t help organise in Belfast), it was been a good weekend of reporting from Suzanne Breen in the Sunday World.