Northern Ireland news

Friendship with Martin McGuinness 'nearly led to David Latimer's sacking as army chaplain'

Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer with the late Martin McGuinness. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE Presbyterian minister who became good friends with Martin McGuinness has revealed how British Army top brass wanted him sacked as a chaplain because of his relationship with the late Sinn Féin figurehead and his views on the war in Afghanistan.

A new book by Reverend David Latimer, minister at First Derry Presbyterian Church, reveals how a degree of disillusionment with the conflict in Afghanistan, coupled with his friendship with the former deputy first minister, made him unpopular with some high-ranking military officials.

Featuring a foreword by Bernie McGuinness, the late Mr McGuinness's widow, 'A Leap of Faith' tells how an initial meeting led to a strong and lasting friendship that was as close as it was unexpected.

Covering a series of key events – including Rev Latimer's speech at the Sinn Féin ard fheis, Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen, and the pair's joint work for peace in Derry, the book also recalls the author's time as an army chaplain at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2008.

He writes how during his four-month posting he "stood alongside 56 body bags" and was deeply affected by the experience.

"Throughout my time in Camp Bastion, I was writing articles about the job I was doing and forwarding these to journalists in Belfast and Derry who were printing them in their newspapers – this kept people back home informed," he writes in 'A Leap of Faith'.

"By now, I knew to exercise caution but I did not ask for any of my pieces to be officially checked because I felt they did not contain any sensitive details."

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The author recalls that after returning from the mortuary having seen "yet another young British soldier’s mutilated body" he was prompted to write.

"In this article I included the statement: ‘At this moment in time, I could not support political decisions that mobilise young men and women to a theatre of war.’," the book states.

 Red David Latimer as Camp Bastion chaplain in 2008

A few days later, however, he was informed by the commanding officer that "there was disquiet back home about an article I’d sent to a newspaper".

"I couldn’t think what I could have said – it was only when I got home from Afghanistan that I discovered that the unhappiness was generated by one of my newspaper articles," Rev Latimer remembers.

An article appeared back home under the headline: ‘Army Padre Says He Can No Longer Support War’ and while the the Derry cleric didn't believe it was representative, he felt "the damage was done".

Rev Latimer recalls "anger was in the air" at the Chaplains’ Office at British Army HQ in Lisburn and also in England.

"During one of several ‘interviews without coffee’, I was informed that an official in London, having read the Belfast Telegraph article, had been jumping up and down saying, ‘We must silence this man.’ Another had said, ‘We must sack him,’ only to be told, ‘Sir, we can’t sack this man – he's friendly with Martin McGuinness.’," he writes.

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He subsequently shared this story with Mr McGuinness after he returned home.

"He smiled and said: ‘David, that’s what happens when we put our heads above the parapet! But it’s too late to do anything about it now. The damage is done, they know we’re friends.’," the author recalls

"And he was right."

Rev Latimer also writes about he he felt "humiliated" after being barred from speaking at a thanksgiving service in Belfast's St Anne’s Cathedral to mark the troops' return.

He was told by his commanding officer on the morning of the service that he wouldn't be preaching.

"‘Somebody was to tell you. The dean will be preaching. It’s got nothing to do with what you’ve been writing or with the people you’re friendly with.’," the Rev Latimer was told.

"Because I was not wearing robes, I was forbidden by the dean to process with other clergy at the start of the service," he says.

"Instead, I was taken to my seat. I felt humiliated, to say the least."

A Leap of Faith by David Latimer is published by Blackstaff Press with all sales proceeds going to North West Cancer Centre.

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A Leap of Faith by David Latimer

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