It must be irritating for those who like to present the differences here as between Protestants and Catholics when they run up against the fact that the history of Irish republicanism is studded with Protestants. Sam Maguire (he of the famous Sam Maguire Cup) was a Protestant who recruited Michael Collins into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, just as Bulmer Hobson (another Protestant) swore Padraig Pearse into the same organisation. Constance Markievicz, Roger Casement, Ernest Blythe - all Protestants. Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president, was another. And that fellow Yeats as well, not to mention the founder of Irish republicanism, Wolfe Tone.
Which brings us to this weekend and the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis: the party have invited Derry Presbyterian minister the Reverend David Latimer to address them. Now politicians never do anything - well, not in public anyway - without a reason. The message Sinn Féin are sending out with the David Latimer thing is that they want to bridge the gulf between republicanism and the Protestant community today. This for some is an appalling vista and so there have been efforts to show Latimer as something of an odd-ball, a maverick. Gregory Campbell was on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning reminding listeners that Latimer spoke with dissidents, opposed a public parade of RIR men returning from Afghanistan and his attendance at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis fitted into this dubious pattern.
It all may seem a small matter - Protestant clergyman makes speech to republicans, big deal - but actually it does matter, both for republicans and for the clergyman involved. Sinn Féin have made it a party priority to break down divisions between themselves and Protestants. In fact for some in Sinn Féin, Ireland won't be worth uniting until Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter are united in the north. It's important for the clergyman because...well, do I need to tell you? Read your Bible. One of the things the Pharisees accused Jesus of was consorting with sinners. I'm not sure if Rev David Latimer thinks Shinners are sinners, but he knows as a Christian that even they were, that's no reason for him to avoid contact or conversation with them.
Hats off to David Latimer this morning, then, for having the courage of his Christian convictions.