Mourners bid sad farewell to slain prison officer and 'totally devoted' family man
In bitter cold, under a weak sun over 1,000 thronged the Presbyterian church, writes KATHY SHERIDAN
MORE THAN 1,000 mourners thronged Molesworth Presbyterian Church and adjoining hall in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, yesterday, for the funeral of David Black, the 52-year-old the prison officer murdered on his way to work in Maghaberry Prison, last Thursday. He was the first prison officer to be murdered in nearly 20 years.
In the bitter cold, under a weak November sun, hundreds of serving and retired colleagues gathered outside the 177-year-old church. Some spoke quietly of the ongoing threat faced by many, of the tight security still maintained around their homes. To a man, they expressed no confidence that the chief suspect would be brought to justice – “he’s too well protected”, said one cryptically.
But security was low-key and the atmosphere kindly. Earlier up to 30 PSNI officers with sniffer dogs had combed the church buildings and surrounding area.
As Minister for Justice Alan Shatter walked into the church with his northern counterpart, David Ford, a 40-strong colour party from the Prison Service awaited the hearse a few hundred yards away. The coffin, draped with the Union Jack and Mr Black’s navy prison service hat and gloves alongside a single cream rose, was borne aloft by his colleagues. As a piper played The Bells of Dunblane, his widow Yvonne and children Kyle (21) and Kyra (17) followed it to the church steps, where the pallbearers handed the coffin back to the family.
Led by Kyle, they bore his coffin into the church of which he had been a devout member, a space unadorned but for the Presbyterian symbol of the burning bush above the pulpit.
The hour-long service included addresses from Presbyterian Moderator Dr Roy Patton, from the Rev Tom Greer, minister of Molesworth Presbyterian church and from a Maghaberry chaplain, the Rev Rodney Cameron. There were also contributions from Kyle and Kyra, from Jim Slaine, a cousin of Mr Black, and from work colleague Derek Preston.
They portrayed an honourable, happy, decent man, who was never less than respectful and compassionate to his prison charges, one who liked a bit of banter and loved his ham and tomato sandwiches as well as Manchester United.
Kyra, described as his “princess”, recited a self-written poem to her father – “you’re not just my Daddy but forever, my special hero . . . ”. She became too upset to finish it.
Kyle talked wistfully but clearly of “that wee man with the big smile and the bigger heart . . . Today we are so proud of Daddy’s principles and honesty. One time in his life he felt so let down by the people he expected to stand by him because of the truth. And they didn’t. But they know who they are here today”.
In loving tones, he described a “totally devoted” family man, a “true gentleman, always happy and with a smile for everyone”, a true and loyal friend through thick and thin, a man who called a spade a spade, but was always “very fair”.
“It didn’t matter what religion, race or background you came from, Daddy gave everybody a chance. That has been evident over the last few days. Even prisoners that Daddy cared for showed their support”.
Mr Black’s cousin and life-long friend, Jim Slaine, told the congregation that David had left school at 16 to work in a bacon factory, before joining the prison service. “David did well in life . . . But above all, he did it all with honesty and integrity,” he said, his voice breaking. “The people who did this to David are cowards in the extreme. They are people who probably never did a day’s work in their life, unlike the man they killed. They probably live on the tax he paid. We all know they will have to live with what they’ve done and they will meet their maker.”
Earlier, prison chaplain the Rev Rodney Cameron gave a context to Mr Black’s work in the prison’s induction wing, where his “engaging manner and sense of humour could put the most fearful new arrival at their ease”. His discernment in directing chaplains “to the ones most in need of a conversation” and his authority and skills were much valued. “Not many have a family that’s been robbed of a husband, a father and a son but can I say, the very man who could possibly have shown compassion to a cold-hearted killer has had his life stolen by such a person.”
The prison chaplin also challenged “the wider society”.
“What do you want us to do in the face of the most difficult, troubled . . . people? Is Maghaberry/Magilligan to be landfill for human waste? Or a warehouse where we catalogue them and send them back out? . . . David didn’t need a training process to know intuitively that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This should be a regenerative place for this country”.
The final address was from the Rev Tom Greer, who told of how “many a tear was shed on Sunday” in David’s church family. “David Black was a man of honour and principle . . . a man committed to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland – all those things completely the opposite of the murderous thugs and bloodthirsty criminals who took David’s life”. He remarked on the dignity shown by the Black family in the heart of the storm.
“They have determined not to seek revenge or to encourage it in anyone else,” he added.
“They long to see justice done but will not meet other people’s bitterness and hatred with any of their own.”
Those present included President Michael D Higgins’s representative, Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, director general of the NI prison service Sue McAllister, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and Stormont Ministers Danny Kennedy, Jonathan Bell and Alex Attwood.
There were no Sinn Féin representatives at the family’s request.
Following the service, Mr Black’s remains were taken for burial to Kildress parish churchyard.