Symbolism potent as local GAA club members pass coffin to police officers

 

The planning was careful, the imagery intentional: a resolute message was being sent to people who may or may not listen. Here was a society united against a cruel murder, writes GERRY MORIARTY, Northern Editor,  in Beragh, Co Tyrone

THE FUNERAL of Constable Ronan Kerr was rich in symbolism, expressive of a society in transformation and prepared to break more of the chains of the past, powerful in its humanity and potent too in its denunciation of a terrible act. On Sunday, Constable Kerr’s stalwart mother Nuala called on everyone to “stand up and be counted” against the murder of her son – and that is what was manifest in Beragh yesterday.

You could tell the Protestants and the Catholics standing together outside the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the little Tyrone village. As family members took the coffin from senior members of the GAA, the Catholics blessed themselves, the Protestants bowed their heads – both acts of solidarity, sadness and respect.

The coffin, with the officer’s cap and gloves on top, had just been shouldered past a guard of honour in the church grounds: two loose intermingled lines of green-uniformed colleagues of the murdered man, of red-jerseyed members of the local GAA club, the Beragh Red Knights – of which Ronan Kerr was a proud member – and of local Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren.

Also there were the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, breaking with a rigid doctrinal tradition to attend his first Mass, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, other unionist and nationalist leaders, and the four main church leaders.

There too were Enda Kenny, the first Taoiseach to attend the funeral of a murdered Northern Ireland police officer; Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Northern Secretary Owen Paterson; Justice Ministers from the North and South, David Ford and Alan Shatter; PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan.

Minutes earlier, Nuala Kerr and her children Cathair, Dairine and Aaron led hundreds of mourners who followed the hearse through the main street of Beragh to the church.

They managed to hold themselves emotionally together – but only just, you could see.

On the street, members of the local GAA club took the first lift of the coffin, passing on the coffin to police officers who trained and graduated with Kerr or worked in his squad in Enniskillen.

It was lost on no one that here were two forces who in the past deeply distrusted each other – as exemplified by the GAA’s previous refusal to allow PSNI officers to join the organisation.

Another healing moment was reinforced when the PSNI pallbearers passed on the third lift to senior GAA figures including Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, county team captain Brian Dooher, GAA president Christy Cooney and the Ulster GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail.

The planning was careful, the imagery was intentional: a resolute message was being sent to people who may or may not listen.

Here was a society and an island united against a cruel murder and prepared to break with some outmoded canons to underscore that point.

In the church, Kerr’s brother Aaron, with breaking voice, recited a short poem about his beloved brother, saying that the “perfect words” escaped him to express his love for Ronan.

Cardinal Seán Brady spoke strongly. Let no one be deceived by those “who say that Ireland will be united or the union made more secure by war”, he said.

“They are wrong. It is an illusion.”

Outside the church Paddy Joe McClean, a civil rights activist who was interned both in the 1950s and 1970s, at 78, and with all his opposition to violence and all his experience of bad times, saw some hope in the day of mourning and of people standing in solidarity.

“The right words are being spoken,” he said, “and the so-called dissidents are going nowhere.”