It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the Waterfront Hall. Indeed, it was back in the days when Jeffrey Donaldson was still in the UUP and the party had the place permanently reserved as a venue for regular verbal punch-ups between David Trimble and the growing army of rebels within his own ranks.
It was an altogether different bunch of rebels last night, an army of united-Irelands, many of whom had travelled a very long way (maybe even passing Prince Charles as he visited this part of his future kingdom) to debate, among other things, a motion calling for the ‘practical planning for Irish unity to begin now’.
The conference programme may have referred to the six counties, but the reality was that this was the first time that an ard fheis had been held in the UK: in a conference centre a stone’s throw away from the very courts that had dispatched many IRA members to prison and a mere black taxi ride from the offices Martin McGuinness shares with Peter Robinson in the once hated Stormont. A very unlikely setting to prepare for unity!
So it’s probably no surprise that they should go for a headline grabber on the opening night. The Rev David Latimer, a former TA chaplain who has held hands with Martin McGuinness as they prayed together, seemed like the perfect person to fill the role. The fact that his acceptance of an invitation to address the event had annoyed a wide range of unionists and evangelicals, while securing extensive coverage in the local media, would suggest a job well done by Sinn Fein’s PR team.
And Rev Latimer was everything that Sinn Fein could have hoped for, earning huge applause when he described Martin McGuinness as “one of the true great leaders of modern times”. Not one word of specific criticism of either Sinn Fein or the IRA, just a lumping of everyone together because, as he argued, “all of us have been part of the problem in one form or another”. They loved him and he, with hands on hips to acknowledge their welcome, loved them back. This was a sermon, not a speech: turquoise unionism of the most timid, tepid variety from someone who delivered exactly what the Sinn Fein leadership expected of him. They lapped it up because it was the sort of intellectual Lundyism which makes them think that their unionist outreach strategy is actually a huge success.
The Rev Latimer had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a unionist Daniel in a lion’s den of republicanism. That he chose, instead, to be a squeaking, keep-the-audience-happy-at-all-costs mouse, is something that only he will ever understand. I can make myself available for the next ard fheis if Sinn Fein really wants to know what unionists think!