17 May 2006

Mourners 'attacked' at Ballymena funeral

BN.ie

17/05/2006 - 17:35:35

Loyalists attacked mourners on their way to the funeral of murdered Catholic schoolboy Michael McIlveen, it was claimed tonight.

Police confirmed they were investigating reports that a car was stoned near a cemetery in Ballymena, Co Antrim.

The 15-year-old’s coffin had been taken from All Saints Church after Requiem Mass attended by more than 1,000 people united by grief and opposition to sectarian hatred.

But a Sinn Féin representative in the staunchly Protestant town claimed a loyalist crowd waved placards saying they were under siege in front of those travelling to Crebilly graveyard.

Councillor Monica Digney said: “The so-called protestors then surrounded and stoned two cars in Ballykeel en route to the funeral of Michael McIlveen, and were heard to shout ‘kill the fenians’.”

A Police Service of Northern Ireland spokesman said officers were probing claims that a car had been hit in the Ballykeel district.

“We have no reports of any injuries or damage,” he added.

Michael was beaten to death in a gang attack on May 7.

He was chased, cornered and battered with a baseball bat. Even though he managed to stagger home, the St Patrick’s High School pupil was taken to the Antrim Area Hospital, where he died a day later.

Six teenagers have been charged with his murder and a seventh accused of affray.

Earlier a priest told mourners a darkness had descended upon Ballymena with the wanton murder of Michael.

Father Paul Symonds described the teenager as full of life, looking forward to a career and playing his part in creating a more harmonious, respectful society.

During his homily at the packed church, with hundreds of mourners listening outside, he said: “In his short life Michael touched many others – his family of course, but also his schoolmates and his many friends, especially from the Ballyloughan Cross Community Club.

“Michael loved Ballymena, and the society in which he mixed embraced both the north and south of the town, both Catholic and Protestant, supporters of Celtic and Rangers, as well as other teams.”

Father Symonds told how the McIlveen family had been deeply touched by the wave of sympathy and compassion from Protestant neighbours and church leaders, but urged against complacency.

“We must grasp this opportunity of a new beginning, aware that cynical and negative voices will try to stifle the good that God can bring from the evil of Michael’s death.”

Friends had crossed the religious divide to grieve together.

Amid scores of Glasgow Celtic football jerseys some youths came to mourn wearing rival Rangers shirts.

All bore the same message on the back in tribute to the young victim whose death has traumatised a town bedevilled by sectarianism.

“Micky Bo RIP” the tops said.

Tommy Nicholl, a member of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Mayor of Ballymena, said he was heartened by the solidarity shown by a younger generation amid such tensions.

He said: “I would like to think it’s the beginning of the healing process. Ballymena certainly needs it.

“I would plead for people on both sides to draw back from the brink and allow me to give leadership.”

As well as Mr Nicholl, there in the absence of Mr Paisley – who could not attend because of Westminster business but who visited the McIlveens to express his sympathies as their MP – Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness and party colleague Philip McGuigan MLA were at the funeral.

The nationalist SDLP Assembly member Sean Farren, Alliance Party leader David Ford, and Ballymena’s police commander, Chief Superintendent Terry Shevlin also attended.

They watched with hundreds of mourners as the white coffin was carried from Michael’s home in the Dunvale estate to be taken to All Saints Catholic Church.

The youngster’s heartbroken mother, Gina, followed behind, comforted by relatives.

The front garden of her terrace home had been taken over with floral tributes and football shirts from those who had come to pay their respects over the last 10 days.

:: Meanwhile the Parades Commission has welcomed a decision of the Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster Flute Band to re-route its parade this Saturday night away from an area close to where the teenage boy was attacked.

A spokesman for the Parades Commission said they had hoped the organisers would voluntarily stay away from the contentious area.

He said: “It is entirely appropriate that local sensitivities and evolving events are taken into account when parades are planned. Hopefully, this move will set the tone for a calm and respectful marching season in 2006.”

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