- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

BERAGH, Northern Ireland | Government and church leaders from across Ireland joined thousands Wednesday at the funeral of a Catholic policeman slain by IRA dissidents - a rare killing that has highlighted the dramatic social changes of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Constable Ronan Kerr, 25, was killed Saturday by a booby-trap bomb hidden under his car outside his home in the town of Omagh.

A new recruit barely weeks into the job, Constable Kerr was the first member of Northern Ireland’s security forces to be slain since March 2009, when IRA dissidents fatally shot a policeman and two off-duty British soldiers.

Constable Kerr came from nearby Beragh, a predominantly Catholic village nestled in the rolling County Tyrone hills, where, until recent years, the Irish Republican Army enjoyed strong support and police were viewed with hostility as a Protestant occupation force.

But on Wednesday, a sea of ashen-faced humanity, Protestant and Catholic alike, packed the sidewalks to honor Constable Kerr as a peacemaker.

Police, family and friends took turns carrying his casket - topped with his officer’s cap and leather gloves - down the main street as the village church bell tolled slowly.

Images of transformed times, of a society determined to leave behind four decades of conflict that killed 3,700 people, could be seen in every direction.

The guard of honor lining the roadway included, on one side, police officers in their dark green uniforms - who once entered Beragh only if wearing flak jackets and accompanied by British troops.

On the other side stood young athletes from Beragh’s club of the Gaelic Athletic Association, a national linchpin of Irish Catholic life that until a decade ago banned police officers from membership.

Outside the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, Constable Kerr’s family demonstrated remarkable poise as they greeted a cavalcade of Ireland’s leadership: the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches; the commanders of the police forces in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the new prime minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny; and the leaders of Northern Ireland’s 4-year-old Catholic-Protestant government.

First Minister Peter Robinson, a Protestant, had never attended a Catholic church service before. And Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic, had never before attended a policeman’s funeral.

Mr. Robinson said he understood that many Ulster Protestants consider it a sin to attend any Catholic ceremony - a view he normally observes himself - but as government leader he had a duty to defend the policeman’s sacrifice and honor his family’s law-and-order stance.

“I hope people will understand that when dissidents murder a young man, that it is right that the political establishment stands up and makes it very clear that they stand with this family,” he said.