A Presbyterian Minister, in the Scottish-Calvinist tradition in Ireland, the Reverend David Latimer, speaks at the Ard Fheis (annual congress) of Irish republican party Sinn Féin. He is a Unionist, with allegiance to London, and a former soldier in the British Army, having served as a chaplain in Afghanistan.
The invitation to speak came from Martin McGuinness, himself a former soldier in the IRA and currently joint First Minister in the power-sharing Executive that governs Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
The speech causes a political stir. It includes a call for a day of Hope and Transformation in response to the legacy of the past, considerable praise for Martin McGuinness' leadership and an appeal for God's help in building a 'distinguished future where we will work and grow in harmony.'
Bellows of disharmony are loudest from other Unionists, notably in The Belfast Newsletter, where commentators castigate the cleric for not challenging Sinn Féin. Gregory Campbell, MP from East Londonderry, describes the cleric's actions as 'naïve' and, in a radio interview, links the invitation with the securing of government funds for the renovation of the cleric's church in Derry (54 degrees North, 7 degrees West).
Reverend Latimer ministers in a reformation church. Martin McGuinness is a Roman Catholic. Gregory Campbell is a member of a dissident reformed Church, The Free Presbyterian Church. He is an evangelical. All three men are Christians. All three men base their beliefs, their morals and their public behaviour on interpretations of a sacred text, the Bible, where Proverbs 27:6 has
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
In speaking at the party conference of the enemy The Reverend Latimer has attempted to outflank the current political narrative with a religious one, challenging the language of separation with a discourse of reconciliation.
Separation along religio-political lines in a sectarian carve-up is one of the criticisms levelled at the power-sharing Executive led by Campbell and McGuinness' parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin. This separation may be given a boost by the proposals presented by The Boundary Commission for redrawing constituencies. Ironically Gregory Campbell will lose votes if the east-west, unionist-nationalist split is further advanced.
The move from enemy to friend is fraught with difficulty, in the aftermath of violent conflict. Can enemies become friends in the face of such re-partition? India and Pakistan struggle with it. Will Northern Ireland become another Belgium?
Gregory Campbell is familiar with the text above, but not the gesture, the move. The Reverend Latimer, acknowledged as a colourful and effusive character, may be castigated for being overly demonstrative and a side-show, but his challenge is to the political class across the board.
Four hundred years old this year, the King James version of the Bible, at Ezekiel 45:17, has
And it shall be the prince's part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all solemnities of the house of Israel: he shall prepare the sin offering, and the meat offering, and the burnt offering, and the peace offerings, to make reconciliation for the house of Israel.
The Reverend Latimer, Gregory Campbell and Martin McGuinness may share the text, but will they share the gesture, when the votes come in?
Text of Reverend Latimer's speech; Londonderry Sentinel; 14.9.2011
King James Bible; on-line at Bible Gateway