Reverend David Latimer speaks to WIP 2012 Intern Ciaran Roddy about his reflections on leadership.Rev. David Latimer is the minister at the First Derry Presbyterian Church. In recent times, Rev. Latimer supplied the foundation for the building of relations on both sides of the community in Derry. He is perhaps best known for his excellent relationship with Martin McGuinness and in becoming the first ordained Protestant minister to speak at Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis. Furthermore, he has organized a series of events under the heading “Conversations Across Walls and Borders”. Most notably, this initiative has seen President Mary McAleese address a wide section of the community who were invited to her speech at St. Augustine’s Church.
Rev. Latimer was so kind as to give me an hour of his time for an interview before my departure to Washington as part of the Washington Ireland Program.
Ciaran Roddy: What were you doing when you were my age?
Rev. David Latimer: When I was your age, 23, I was working in Belfast as a systems analyst for the electricity service. At the age of 23 I was also walking down the aisle with the lady who is still my wife. I wasn’t a clergyman at this stage I was just a working man who was embarking upon the voyage of marriage.
CR: If you don’t mind me asking, what made you join the clergy?
RDL: Whilst I had been progressing well within the electricity board, I felt that there was something incomplete in my life and I was able to, as far as a human can establish that there was a higher power calling me to do something different, namely God. I was fairly sure that I had to change direction and train to become a Presbyterian clergyman.
CR: With respect to your life within the clergy, how did you get to where you are today?
RDL: The journey to where I am in Derry-Londonderry involved quitting my job. We had two small children, so it involved leaving the security of my job and the salary that came with it to embark on theological studies which lasted for three years but myself and my wife were determined not to let anything deflect us from the journey that God was mapping out for us. Subsequently, having spent four years in County Down in a very safe area where many of the people seemed to be well insulated from the troubles an invitation was extending to me come to this city and with the church surrounded with all its security paraphernalia was an unattractive venture. But given the unattractiveness of the church and the conditions that were apparent in Derry- Londonderry at that time I felt very strongly that this was God pulling us away from the safety of one location to another location that was full of the unknown. We arrived here in 1988 and for the past 24 years I’ve been the minister of First Derry Presbyterian.
CR: Whilst we’re on the subject of where you are today, I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Martin McGuinness and how you came to become the first ordained Protestant Minister to give an address at Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis?
RDL: If I was to date my relationship with Martin McGuinness I’d have to go back six years at a time when the church was regularly vandalized. I was unhappy that a church that was going to be restored should be covered in different colors of paint: green, white and orange and red, white and blue – both communities got their colors onto the façade! So, I went on the radio and asserted that there was only one man who could sort this out, and I said that it was Martin McGuinness. Within 20 minutes, I had received a phone call from Sinn Fein who said that Martin was very keen for us to have a conversation. The following day, Martin and I met and talked and that was the beginning of a journey that can be captured within a period of six years. In that period we have regularly met and through talking we have grown to understand one another and we were both anxious to build relationships so that never again would our two communities ever feel the need to resort to violence, which is a road to further violence, pain, distress and separation.
CR: Who was the most influential person in your life, and why?
RDL: I imagine that parents are hugely influential in any person’s life. If I was extending it beyond my mother and father I would say that a man called S.R. Patterson who was a primary school principal and Captain of the Boy’s Brigade. Within the Boy’s Brigade, he committed himself to ensuring that boys growing up in my hometown of Dromore, Co.Down were well looked after and were given a good example from an early age. I would say that he perhaps shaped the person that I have grown into.
CR: If there was one thing that you could change about the Northern Irish political system, what would it be and why?
RDL: In the past I would suggest that politicians in Northern Ireland had concentrated on the needs of their own community as if the other community didn’t have similar needs to their own. So, something that is changing and something that I would like to continue to see changing would be for politicians to look beyond party interests for the greater good of everybody. In the current economic climate, I would suggest that politicians are getting the message that people are interested in the bread and butter issues.
CR: What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland?
RDL: I would suggest that it would be very enriching for a young person to leave Northern Ireland for a short while to live in a different community, in a different country and then to return broadened, more experienced and better able to deal with what has been historically described as a divided society in Northern Ireland. But, I would want our young people to come back. We need our young people to come back equipped not just with their education but with a more rounded experience of life.
CR: Would you like to see any changes to the current education system in Northern Ireland. If so, what?
RDL: Having discussed with my contacts in the British Army and families that come to live in Northern Ireland for a short period who are consequently in a position to compare our education system with those in England, Scotland and Wales, they would have said without any hesitation that the quality of education in Northern Ireland is the best they have experienced.
Having said that, our education system is still divided and from a very young age we are separating people simply on the basis of religion. The result of this is that maybe certain Catholics and Protestants wouldn’t meet up until they are taking a place at the same university. I am glad to say that in this city, integration with a small ‘i’ is happening as partnerships have taken place to ensure that pupils at smaller schools have access to the full curriculum.
I would like to see Catholic and Protestant children mixing earlier in life as friendships can develop and if you know somebody, the chances of you going on to see that person as an enemy later in life is greatly minimized and it creates a better chance that we may go through life as friends and neighbors and not as strangers and enemies.
CR: How do you feel as a city that we should deal with the threat of dissident republicans?
RDL: I am saddened that we still have people who are prepared to use violence in our community. It is not the answer. I spent time in Afghanistan as a hospital chaplain and in a short 12 week period I stood alongside 59 body bags. When the body bags were opened they revealed to me the horrific results of bombs and bullets. I also stood alongside surgical teams in the operating theater as they attempted to save the lives of those who had been badly injured. As I experienced all of that it confirmed to me powerfully that Winston Churchill was right when he said, “The answer is not war-war, it’s jaw-jaw”, meaning that we have to start to talk.
In Northern Ireland, we are talking. Looking at Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, two men who would have run in different directions to vilify each other rather than talk about working together famously went into government together. We have observed people from both sides of the community walking away from violence and into government. However, there still is that minority who sadly see the only way forward through the barrel of a gun. What encourages me is that the support for these people is small. If our communities can work together in building a strong, united foundation we could cut off the oxygen supply for those dissidents in ensuring that we never again return to the violence of the past.
We now have a police service that is very different to that which existed during the troubles. The PSNI can be seen as a fairer organization than that which preceded it. It’s still gaining trust, but as trust builds hopefully the information regarding dissident activities will begin to flow to the police before any damage is done. As a result, those responsible can be put through the courts and sentenced accordingly and the rest of us can be kept safe.
CR: What gave you the idea to embark upon ‘Conversations Across Walls and Borders’?
RDL: When we opened the church here in May 2011, we did something that few churches have ever done. Most churches look to fill it with its own people, but because we were coming back onto the Derry Walls overlooking Free Derry Corner and an area that was the heart of republicanism in the city – it almost seems like a daft place for a Protestant church to be – we decided to extend invitations widely and the opening ceremony was filled with all citizens of this city whether they were Catholics, Protestants, Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists or Republicans; effected or unaffected by the troubles. That gave me a vision; I did not want this to be a one off. Therefore, in October 2011, we had President McAleese speak her. Her speech was very powerful and the ripples of her speech continue to reach out to our community. One of things she said was:
“We are no longer at the bottom of the hill looking up. We are now halfway up the hill. As we look up we can see that the rewards of continuing are well worth it and remember two can travel much easier than one”.
This was her way of saying that the mutual support of the other community can make our uphill journey, which won’t be without its bumps or perils, more manageable. And you know what, with the right road map perhaps we in this city will move toward that “Bright, brand new day” that Phil Coulter talks about in his famous song about this city and perhaps we will become the envy of those elsewhere. People may look to us and think: “Gosh! If they can do it there, then perhaps peace can be achieved anywhere.”
CR: How would you deal with someone in your parish who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for dealing with those whom they may feel uncomfortable with as a legacy of the troubles?
RDL: There are nine families in the First Presbyterian Church who lost loved ones during the troubles. They lost those love ones because they wore the uniforms of the RUC or the UDR. Those families paid a high price and I have to accept that it would not please those families to see David Latimer in the company of Martin McGuinness – who many perceive as being the top IRA person in the country at that time.
F.W. de Klerk said this: “If for every person who hurts me if at least two people support me I will feel that I can continue doing what I am doing”. I feel that that I am somewhere there myself as my mail would fall into the proportions of one-third very angry and offensive and two-thirds would be very supportive. Within my church there have been a number of people who have come to me and expressed their strong views against what I am doing. What I tend to do is say, ‘Let’s fix and evening when we can sit down and talk because I want to hear your story and I want to explain why I am doing what I am doing’. I find that helps. Still not everyone is thrilled with what I am doing, but the majority of the people are and what assists their understanding is a belief that children aged 4, 5 and 6 are going to inherit a more peaceful society where there is no threat of bombs or violence.
CR: Derry will be UK City of Culture in 2013. This a big year for our city. What legacy would like to see City of Culture leave on our city?
RDL: There has got to something other than the memory of concerts or celebrity figures. I want to see fun, excitement and enthusiasm but unless there’s something that will make a difference for people who are hurting or struggling then I think it could all fall flat. Human beings are creatures with memories and those memories do not allow us to forget the past and I don’t want people to forget the past. If you forget the past you run the risk of doing again what you have done in the past! Human beings are also creatures with expectations. How can we give people in this city the expectation that City of Culture will bring about a “sea change”, how can we allow them to see the “farther shore” on the “far side of revenge”?
CR: Seamus Heaney?
RDL: Yes! How can we enable people to see that the ice is melting and that winter is changing to summer? The journey we are taking people on will begin in October 2012 and will progressively move through a series of events that will take people to a citywide event that will designed to give rebirth to this city. It will be an event that will allow our city to be seen as a city that has been built for people, whether they are Hebrew, Muslim, Hindu, people from our two traditional communities or people coming from other European countries.
If we can assist people to see things that will persuade them that never again do we need to do what we have done in the past then I think that this could be greatest legacy that City of Culture could leave. When people look back on 2013, if they can see that a door was opened and an opportunity is being provided and the way forward is not down those parallel lines, but on a new shared page of history that will never again see one drop of anybody’s blood spilt upon it.