David Latimer’s speech: if an opportunity; one he missed completely

Following on from Mark’s blog with Rev. David Latimer’s speech to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, I thought an analysis of the speech from a unionist perspective was maybe worthwhile. I have already suggested some possible motives for why Latimer said what he said. However, leaving aside the poor delivery, the preening, the media chasing and anything which might though accurate be described as man playing: why was it nonsense and incorrect?

The first reason is simple whataboutery. Whataboutery is actually entirely appropriate in this case. Latimer called Martin McGuinness “one of the true great leaders of modern times.” If a Christian cleric wishes to describe anyone as that they must perforce analyse the man of whom it is said and his actions. To pick two British / Unionist / Protestant names and two Irish / Nationalist / Catholic ones. Jeffrey Agate was the works director of Du Pont: he was actually English and was not involved in any “legitimate target” occupation. He was, however, murdered by the Londonderry IRA of which Martin McGuinness has admitted being the deputy leader a scant few years before; and it is far from clear when he left the IRA. Then there is Joanne Mathers the 29 year old mother of an infant son who took a job as a part time census worker: she was murdered in 1981; incidentally she was a Presbyterian, not that it makes any difference.

Turning to Catholics / nationalists there is Patrick “Patsy” Gillespie who was forced by the IRA to drive a proxy bomb to Coshquin army base and was murdered in the resulting explosion. Mr. Gillespie was killed in 1991. At his funeral Bishop Edward Daly stated of his killers “…the complete contradiction of Christianity. They may say they are followers of Christ. Some of them may even still engage in the hypocrisy of coming to church, but their lives and their works proclaim clearly that they follow Satan.” Then finally there is the case of Frank Hegarty whose mother was told by McGuinness “Don’t worry, I will bring him home to you.” His body was found a few days later, hands bound behind his back, eyes taped and with bullet wounds in the back of his head.

Those are all cases of whataboutery, plain and simple: however, if David Latimer as a Christian minister wants to proclaim Martin McGuinness “one of the true great leaders of modern times” then it is perfectly legitimate to ask Latimer: what of this innocent blood? What involvement did McGuinness have, what does he know and refuse to tell, for refuse he does, of those deaths.

Turning to Latimer’s claim that we all share the blame for the Troubles. This is yet again an untruth by any normal analysis of morality: Protestantism, Catholicism or practically all other religious and secular moralities. Those who committed wicked crimes from whatever community are wholly personally responsible. Furthermore even to try to blame unionists for the discrimination prior to the Troubles is utterly flawed. A whole community cannot be “to blame”: that is the sort of collective guilt which is considered unacceptable in all moralities. Furthermore Latimer as a man in his 50s at most, was most unlikely to have been responsible for any discrimination prior to the Troubles. I, as a forty year old, (far from the youngest Protestant in Ulster) was not even born when civil rights started: as a babe in arms I was unlikely to be capable of much discriminating; as such I cannot accept any guilt for what happened in the past. Furthermore Latimer singularly failed to explain how the supposed collective guilt of the unionist community here for discrimination prior to 1969 in any way justified the murderous actions of the IRA up to and even beyond the ceasefires.

Ironically there is a mechanism by which fundamentalist protestantism might sort of agree with Latimer’s analysis of guilt. Latimer as a Presbyterian holds to a Calvinist analysis. By that we are all guilty in what is called “Total Depravity”. However, that is a theological concept relating to the inability of humans to please God and earn salvation: not the stuff of politics nor even of conventional responsibility and guilt in a worldly setting. The Total Depravity of Protestants (or anyone else) is relevant and apt before Almighty God, not the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.

Indeed that is another failing of Latimer’s speech. Evangelical Christians (and Latimer affirmed his belief in being born again and that he was a born again believer to a caller on the Nolan Show on Friday) would have hoped that the first evangelical Christian to be given the opportunity to speak to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis would tell them of the need all of us have of personal salvation. However, of such things, which to evangelicals are far more important than mere politics or the things of this world, Latimer said not a word. From an evangelical point of view Latimer missed an enormous opportunity to preach the Gospel of Christ and Him Crucified.

In terms of political unionism Latimer’s speech was also utterly flawed. His presentation of an ultra liberal “lets get along-erism” was breath taking in its liberalism. Not even the most liberal elements of the Alliance Party would have lauded McGuinness or heaped so much praise on Sinn Fein without hint of criticism nor call for reciprocation. In that Latimer failed singularly to tell Sinn Fein what unionists think of, or want from republicans. The more naïve and foolish republicans may see in Latimer’s comments a weak and divided unionism. Some might see it as a sign that their “unionist engagement” strategy is working. Many years ago when I first started commenting on slugger it was on a thread on unionist engagement and I suggested that the odd ultra liberal unionist would take unionist engagement seriously. Here is an example of that. The problem is that for the naive republican this will be seen as a sign that unionists’ objection to the republican analysis of the past, present and future is wavering and that they are succeeding. Such republicans may then mistakenly interpret the views of unionist workmates and the like who make no comment on politics as being the same as Latimer. That would lead to those republicans being sorely mistaken about the nature of the unionist body politic. Those republicans in the RoI, seeing so few unionists, would be particularly in danger of this error.

Republicans with more understanding of unionists will know that the speech was the pointless comments of a man on this issue utterly out of touch with his own community or else so desperate to please his audience that he was willing to say almost the opposite of what most of his community thinks. As such republicans have gained no insight into the minds of unionists save maybe to note that if one helps give one specific Presbyterian clergyman £1.6 million that specific individual will say pretty much anything. Hardly a sound basis to make strategy or policy on.

More sober minded and wiser republicans may well have found the speech utterly pointless. Yes they will have enjoyed seeing one of “the other side” fawning over them and their deputy leader. However, as an ambassador to unionists in terms of making republicans acceptable Latimer has by his speech become a busted flush. He is now of no use to them as any sort of Trojan Horse into the metaphorical Derry’s Walls of unionism. Rather (to continue the Londonderry analogy) Latimer at one bound made Robert Lundy seem like George Walker.

Those republicans who have had to deal with unionist politicians, especially the First Minister, will have discovered that although Peter Robinson can be polite and business like with them he has not been lured into views like those of Latimer. Robinson might have been pleased when McGuinness commiserated with him over his troubles last year but in no way has that stopped Robinson from being a unionist. Robinson may nowadays wear a velvet glove superficially similar to David Latimer’s but whilst in Latimer’s case that glove hides a fist of blancmange, in Peter Robinson’s case the fist is assuredly chainmail. Peter Robinson not David Latimer is leader of Ulster’s unionists.

Latimer’s speech then, shorn of its sycophancy, gained republicanism no insight into unionist thinking; it did not present republicans with the political or theological analysis of any part of the unionist community. As such Latimer failed totally in the aims he set out for himself beforehand.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.