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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 17:14 GMT
Ervine's life 'a powerful testament'
Kevin Connolly
By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

How different would David Ervine's funeral have been if he had died in 1974 - the year in which he was jailed after the security forces arrested him as he drove an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) bomb through Belfast.

David Ervine
Ervine's journey from paramilitary to peacemaker "was NI's journey"

There would have been news coverage of course - paramilitary funerals, all black berets and sunglasses, drilling colour-parties and national flags - nearly all made the news even in the bloodiest of years.

But the reactions to his death would have been a product of the hard public mood which those violent and apparently hopeless times tended to generate.

There might - might - have been a sense of despair that an intelligent and personable young man from east Belfast had chosen to involve himself in political violence.

But from the government and from the police there would have been at best an indifferent shrug, and from republicans across the city in west Belfast there would have been only the grim kind of delight which is always a feature of these bitter sectarian conflicts.

So it is worth reflecting on just how extraordinary David Ervine's funeral was, 13 years or so into the peace process he did so much to build.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams comforts Mr Ervine's widow Jeanette
But most remarkable of all was the presence in the congregation of the republican leader Gerry Adams

Both the British and Irish governments were represented in force, and at a high level.

Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, paid a warm personal tribute that was clearly intended to prompt Northern Ireland's deal-shy politicians into concluding the kind of final agreement that David Ervine sought.

Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde was there too, in black tie. There was a fair sprinkling of senior politicians from the more mainstream unionist parties, including Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader, and Peter Robinson of the DUP.

But most remarkable of all was the presence in the congregation of the republican leader Gerry Adams - you would have got long odds 20 years ago on a Sinn Fein president taking his place in the pews of an east Belfast Protestant mission hall to listen as praise was heaped on the life of a former loyalist paramilitary.

'Loyal voters'

And there, in that extraordinary cast list, you have a sense of what lies at the heart of the widespread sense of loss that many in Northern Ireland are experiencing.

David Ervine's journey from paramilitary to peacemaker was Northern Ireland's journey told in a single life - his death a shared loss.

It helped, of course, that he brought a peculiar style to his politics. He never used one word where two would do, and he managed somehow to be direct in his manner and flowery in his speech, all at the same time.

His political party, the Progressive Unionist Party, never enjoyed mass political support (it is the political wing of the still active UVF).

But he had enough loyal voters around the Newtownards Road to twice get him elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds attended the funeral
Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds attended the funeral

He served them, of course, but his real wider service was in the way he brought an unquenchable optimism to Northern Ireland's interminable political process.

He believed not just that peace was best, but that it was achievable too.

We must be careful not to over-romanticise the reaction to his death - Northern Ireland is still Northern Ireland.

Nationalist fans who follow Cliftonville Football Club jeered during an attempt to hold two minutes of silence before their game this week with the team David Ervine supported, Glentoran.

And we must not over-romanticise him either. He would not have been the peacemaker he was if he did not have a dark past to leave behind him.

But for all that, David Ervine's life stands as a powerful testament to the human ability to change and rise above difficult circumstances.

In this deeply divided place, there is no finer tribute than to say of someone that their death has produced a shared sense of loss. David Ervine deserves that tribute.

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