BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Leaders from all sides of Northern Ireland’s conflict united Friday at the funeral of David Ervine, a one-time Protestant extremist who became a leading voice for reason and compromise.
Ervine, who died Monday at age 53 after suffering a heart attack and brain hemorrhage, persuaded his outlawed Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF, to declare a cease-fire and pursue politics.
While Ervine’s legal Progressive Unionist Party won few votes, he became exceptionally popular because of his rare ability to communicate both to his British Protestant base and across the divide to the province’s Irish Catholic minority.
His funeral inside a packed Methodist church attracted an unprecedented array of mourners for Belfast – a city where high walls of brick, steel and barbed wire still divide rival communities, and Protestants and Catholics usually are buried in different cemeteries.
“Who else could have attracted such a breadth of attendance as David has today?” Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain told the mourners. “He earned huge respect because he knew that you couldn’t rewrite history – and he didn’t try. He knew you could shape the future, and in that he played an absolutely central role.”
Sharing pews were delegations from the British and Irish governments, led by Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern; Protestant paramilitary commanders and Northern Ireland police chief Hugh Orde; and the leaders of several other political parties long stung by Ervine’s frequent barbs at their inflexibility.
Most remarkably, the guest list included Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose Irish Republican Army-linked party represents most Catholics – and who was shot and wounded a decade before the Protestant side’s cease-fire.
Adams embraced Ervine’s widow, Jeanette, on the church steps.
Adams, a reputed IRA commander for three decades, said he “obviously had concerns about security” but felt he needed to stress his sympathies to Protestant paramilitary circles “at a time when they have lost their most articulate leader.”
In his eulogy, Ervine’s brother Brian said he was pleased to see “so many people that, 10 years ago, we would have classed as our traditional enemies.” The audience applauded.
Adams sat directly behind Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionists, the major Protestant-backed party. The two did not speak.
Nonetheless, speaker after speaker noted what a broad church it was Friday.
Outside, thousands lined Newtownards Road, the major thoroughfare of Protestant east Belfast, where the ceremony was broadcast on loudspeakers. Some clapped, others shouted their goodbyes, as Ervine’s coffin passed by.
But in a sign of the hatreds and fears that still bedevil Northern Ireland, UVF veterans told camera crews not to film their faces as they helped carry the casket down the road.
As a member of the outlawed UVF in the 1970s, Ervine was committed to killing Catholics in retaliation for IRA attacks on his own community. He was caught in 1974 trying to drive a car bomb into Catholic west Belfast and spent six years in prison.
Like many of Sinn Fein’s future leaders, prison gave Ervine education and political sophistication. In 1994, while still a reputed UVF commander, Ervine helped to deliver a cease-fire by the UVF and another outlawed Protestant group, the Ulster Defense Association or UDA.
Ervine led his fledgling party into 22 months of negotiations that produced the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. But power-sharing collapsed in 2002 amid chronic conflicts between Protestant leaders and Sinn Fein.
Unlike Sinn Fein leaders with an IRA past, Ervine was open about his violent youth – and denounced his side’s anti-Catholic bloodshed as both morally wrong and politically disastrous.
“He wanted to repent and make it right,” said the Rev. Gary Mason, the Methodist minister who oversaw the funeral service. “If only more of our leaders could be so honest.”