Anger and forgiveness as province buries its dead

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The Independent Online
Both sides of the religious divide buried their dead in Northern Ireland yesterday as the province braced itself for more trouble. In Coalisland, 1,000 people turned out for the funeral of Seamus Dillon, a former republican killer. Two hours later, a crowd twice that size gathered in Portadown for the funeral of "King Rat", Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright. Steve Boggan reports.

It was dark by the time they put Billy Wright into the ground, his unmarked grave surrounded by thousands of mourners on a cold, dank day that did not bode well for peace.

For more than two hours his coffin had been carried through the hushed streets of Portadown, teams of bearers changing every few yards in line with his instructions.

Since his murder at the Maze prison last Saturday, and the Loyalist Volunteer Force's murder of Seamus Dillon, 45, in a retaliatory attack at a hotel in Dungannon, tension had been mounting.

The burial of the two victims yesterday did nothing to relieve it. Wright's family called for the resignation of Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, demanded a public inquiry into his murder and said legal action would follow. "Anything less [than a public inquiry] will permanently tarnish what credibility is left in the current British government," they said.

At Wright's funeral, photographers and cameramen had film torn from their cameras by leather-jacketed "stewards" while reporters were ordered to keep their distance. Businesses in the town were locked up from noon to 6pm after being leafletted by the LVF; they feared reprisals if they remained open.

The streets outside Wright's home in Brownstown were lined with thousands of mourners as his coffin was carried the two miles to Seagoe cemetery, following a private service inside the house. The cortege was led by a lone piper and women carrying wreaths and was flanked by a 20-strong guard of honour.

Some 50 yards in front was a black car which carried four men dressed in paramilitary uniforms. The LVF kept its promise not to display weapons or uniforms at the graveside, but it said a number of volunteers had fired a volley in memory of Wright, 37, at Antrim on Monday night.

At Wright's graveside - in accordance with his instructions - the Reverend John Gray, a Free Presbyterian minister, officiated and Pastor Kenny McClinton, a former Maze prisoner, spoke about Wright before delivering a sermon on redemption and salvation.

"There is no doubt in my heart whatsoever that Billy Wright is in heaven at the feet of God," he said.

In Coalisland, where Seamus Dillon, 45, was buried, Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness was among the mourners. Fr Seamus Rice, the parish priest at St Mary and St Joseph's church, called for "dialogue and forgiveness".

He said Dillon's actions outside the Glengannon Hotel last Saturday probably saved many lives inside. There is a belief among nationalists that the LVF had intended to go inside and spray people with bullets. Three others, including a 14-year-old boy, were wounded.

"When Seamus Dillon was brutally murdered, he gave his life saving the lives of others," said Fr Rice. "I have no doubt about that." Dillon's mother, Bridget, issued a statement saying she had already forgiven his killers. As icy darkness fell across Northern Ireland, the majority of the population was hoping her words would be enough to quell the rising tide of anger.