The military service of Northern Ireland veteran Dennis Hutchings is “remembered and respected” despite attempts to “rewrite history”, funeral mourners have heard.
The 80-year-old, from Cawsand in Cornwall, died in Belfast last month after contracting Covid-19 while he was in the city to face trial over a fatal shooting in Co Tyrone in 1974.
The funeral service, which took place in Plymouth on Thursday afternoon, saw dozens of motorbikes from Rolling Thunder UK accompanying the coffin as part of the cortege.
Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer who knew Mr Hutchings, paid tribute to his military service in a speech.
He said: “We gather today to remember a great man – I want to pay him a fulsome tribute.
“I want to pay tribute to his family, I want to remember and pay tribute to his service to this nation and I want to pay tribute to what he represented both in his life and in his passing.”
The Plymouth MP went on to say to Mr Hutchings’ family: “I know the last few years has at times felt lonely, I do not intend to speak about why that was.
“But let me ask you to look around you today, look at what Dennis meant, look at the efforts of those who are gathered here today from across this country to remember a great man.
“Look at these things and know how much Dennis is loved, how much his service was remembered and respected and feel the love of a grateful nation.”
Mr Hutchings had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham, and his solicitor Philip Barden said he had wanted to clear his name.
The case had become the focus of attention in recent years as a number of other prosecutions were announced against veterans over deaths which took place during Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Mr Mercer went on to say: “I must tell you that I’m not proud of how we currently remember those who served in that appalling conflict, trying to prevent a bloody civil war.
“We can be too quick to forget or indeed cower by the rewriting of history into some misplaced shame – the awesome sacrifice and service of our veterans in trying to keep the peace in Northern Ireland.
“I know these feelings can intensify when we see the grotesque spectacle of what happened to Dennis in a Belfast courtroom.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Northern Ireland’s Veterans Minister Danny Kinahan were among the mourners.
Today along with @J_Donaldson_MP I was in Plymouth to pay respects for the life and service of Dennis Hutchings. On this #ArmisticeDay it was particularly moving to see so many service personnel attend to support the family. #LestWeForget pic.twitter.com/mvHAfKHu9u
— Carla Lockhart MP (@carlalockhart) November 11, 2021
Sir Jeffrey said “I shared a platform with Dennis on a number of occasions and colleagues joined him as he faced a trial despite his serious ill health.
“He passed away far from his family and friends, but today there was a very significant turnout of those paying tribute not just to a veteran, but to a father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
“On Armistice Day we pause as a nation to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“It is wrong too that veterans should face continual reinvestigation without evidence or justification.”
Hundreds of people in military clothing lined a road and applauded and saluted as the coffin went by, before it was carried into St Andrew’s Church in the Devon city by military pallbearers to the sounds of the Life Guards Slow March.
Bikers revved and sounded their horns as they arrived close to the church as police blocked off the road.
Military flags were held aloft as the coffin went by and wreaths were laid outside the church.
The coffin was draped in a Union Flag, floral tributes and a military hat.
Friends and family began to enter St Andrew’s Church at 12pm before the service was opened by the Rev Joe Dent.
A sea of people wearing berets, medals and poppies had waited outside for hours.
Written in the order of service was the message: “Dennis’s family wish to express their sincere thanks to all those who have sent cards and messages of condolence, and for your presence at the funeral service today.”
Rolling Thunder UK said on its website it was “very proud” to have been asked to organise the escort for the funeral cortege.
Mr Hutchings was described as “a loving partner, a devoted father and a doting grandfather”.
His son John, 58, told reporters he thought the service was “brilliant” and said he was “very touched and very emotional” about the numbers who had came to pay their respects.