How will we Remember Martin McGuinness?: Review of David Latimer’s ‘A Leap of Faith’

A new book by Rev David Latimer, A Leap of Faith: How Martin McGuinness and I Worked Together for Peace, tells the story of the surprising but strong friendship between Latimer, the minister at First Derry Presbyterian Church, and the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

It was a controversial friendship. There were those within Latimer’s own congregation, the wider Presbyterian Church, and unionism more generally who found it difficult to contemplate his close ties with a former IRA commander.

In May this year, Latimer revealed in a BBC interview that around 30 families had left his church due to his friendship with McGuinness. Nine members of First Derry who were in the security forces were murdered by the IRA during the Troubles.

The book comes with a front-cover endorsement by former American President Bill Clinton, reflecting something of the acclaim that Latimer and McGuinness have gained for their work together in Londonderry/Derry.

In A Leap of Faith, Latimer explains why he thinks McGuinness was a changed man who will ultimately be judged as ‘one of the great leaders of modern times’ – as he said when speaking at the 2011 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.

Latimer is acutely aware that his public praise of McGuinness has hurt victims. He recognises this in the book and reproduces anonymised letters and conversations with those who have criticised him.

He also describes the support he has received for his friendship with McGuinness, making a case that he has not been entirely alone in his ‘leap of faith.’ The appendices include the full text of his speech at the Ard Fheis and his eulogy at McGuinness’ funeral in 2017, where he spoke of a future of of praising God together with McGuinness in ‘the heavenly places.’ These were two of the occasions when his praise for McGuinness upset victims the most.

But for me, one of the more interesting reasons Latimer gives for why McGuinness became a ‘great leader’ has to do with forgiveness. He locates McGuinness’ later life work in the context of being forgiven (p. 127, emphasis mine):

‘The debate will long continue as to whether his violent past can be set aside in the light of his last peace-making decade. In my eyes, turning away from terrorism restored options for Martin, which he grasped readily, using his considerable influence for good. He lived out that last decade as a person who had experienced forgiveness.

I take that to mean that Latimer considers McGuinness forgiven by God, and believes that forgiveness freed McGuinness to work for a  better future for all.

Latimer also reveals that in 2011 he had conversations with McGuinness about producing a ‘public statement from the republican movement’ acknowledging the pain they had caused. Latimer compares this hypothetical statement to the 1994 one by loyalist paramilitaries, which read: ‘In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past twenty-five years abject and true remorse’ (p. 74).

McGuinness asked Latimer to prepare a statement based on their conversations. I do not think this draft statement has been made public previously – at least I do not remember hearing about it if it was. Latimer reproduces it in the book (p. 75):

None of us sowed the seeds of enmity and division that have long characterised this part of Ireland. We inherited the mistrust, sectarianism, and separateness from previous generations of our own families that regrettably culminated in thirty years of conflict. The establishment of a devolved administration at Stormont is not a panacea. Something else is needed to soothe people’s suffering and drive away their tears. For my part, I am prepared to show leadership by expressing genuine remorse to all whose hearts are breaking. My heart goes out to everyone who lost loved ones during the conflict. Together we can plant the shoots of reconciliation and work to bring a better future for everyone, regardless of their creed or culture.

Latimer had hoped the statement would be read aloud in First Derry Presbyterian Church. We will never know what kind of impact such an event would have had. But regardless of this might-have-been, Latimer makes a case for McGuinness’ peacebuilding credentials. He explains how McGuinness intervened to stop the paint-bombing of First Derry in 2007, helped First Derry secure Northern Ireland Tourist Board funding for the repair of their building (it suffered structural damage due to attacks during the Troubles), and supported youth initiatives like ‘Amazing the Space.’

Indeed, one of Latimer’s main motivations for writing A Leap of Faith was to ‘inspire today’s leaders’ (p. 135). It remains to be seen whether the book will change anyone’s mind about McGuinness’ leadership credentials or Latimer’s friendship with him, but it won’t be for Latimer’s lack of trying.

The book also includes a compelling chapter on Latimer’s experiences as an army chaplain in Afghanistan in 2008, which was profiled last month in the Irish News. 

A Leap of Faith should be of interest to a wide general readership curious about Latimer and McGuinness’ unlikely friendship. It also should be a useful primary source for historians seeking personal testimonies about the life and character of McGuinness. There is no doubt that McGuinness is one of the most significant figures of this island’s recent past. Latimer’s book is one effort to shape how we will remember him in the future.