One of the “best” funerals I have attended was for Peter Law, the Independent MP for neighbouring Blaenau Gwent, a principled Socialist and a good friend from our years in the Welsh Assembly.
There was no need to ask for directions to the church because across Blaenau passers-by had gathered along the route being taken by the hearse to pay their last respects to a true son of the valleys. It was impossible to get into the church, but as we stood outside and sang Welsh hymns the gloom lifted. It was the celebration of a great life.
Another moment I will cherish occurred at the end of a funeral for a grand old lady of Monmouthshire who died in her eighties after a full life during which, amongst much else, she had been master of the local hunt. The service took place in a tiny church with a graveyard high up in the Usk valley. Few roads or houses were visible, the scene before our eyes had changed little in hundreds of years. The coffin was brought out of the church for burial and the local Hunt appeared in full dress with the hounds. As the coffin was lowered into the grave the master began blowing “gone away” on the horn, the hounds struck up a tremendous din. Sounds of horn and hound echoed down the empty valley. It was easy to imagine the spirit of a hunter, released from an ageing body, taking one last joyous ghostly gallop across the Monmouthshire countryside.
But there has been little to lift the grief of mourners at the funerals of the three young men from Monmouthshire who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. All in the early twenties; determined, dedicated and courageous, they were the embodiment of all that is good about their generation. They leave behind parents and girlfriends who will never get over their loss.
After one funeral which had taken place with traditional hymns, the coffin was led out of the church with the Black Eyed Peas singing I Gotta Feeling – a song for young people to listen to while out in the pub having drinks with friends: a poignant reminder of what this young man had lost. Nothing could lighten the mood of these occasions, the mourners walk away in a terrible silence.
The experience of sitting a few feet away from the mother, father, brothers, sisters and wife or girlfriend of a young man who has lost his life because of decisions taken by Parliament is sobering. I walk away asking myself a lot of questions about the rightness of those decisions and whether things could be done differently. Now more than ever we need to be asking those questions. For that reason alone, if the families are happy for us to do so, MPs have a duty to try to attend these funerals.
For the same reasons, if not more so, Ministers should be present at as many funerals of service personnel as possible. Currently it is their policy to attend none. That is reprehensible.
The MoD claim, ludicrously, that attending funerals would give publicity to the terrorist cause. Nonsense. The funerals are widely publicised in any event. The ones I have been to have all been attended by the Lord Lieutenant – the Queen's representative – and the appearance of a Minister would be unlikely to make them any more noticeable to members of the Taliban hiding out in the Hindu Kush.
The reluctance of Ministers to pay tribute to servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan is in marked contrast to the honour rightly paid to PC Stephen Carroll who was gunned down by the Continuity IRA earlier this year. His funeral was attended by numerous politicians from Northern Ireland as well as the Secretary of State Shaun Woodward.
There were no concerns in Belfast that the attendance of a British Minister would “give publicity to our enemies' cause.” Instead the presence of a Cabinet Minister emphasised the determination of the Government to do anything necessary to defeat those who want to drag Northern Ireland back to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. Do Minsters lack the same determination to defeat the Taliban?
Of course there is no doubt as to the importance of maintaining a police presence in Northern Ireland and although there are concerns over budgets, frontline police are given the equipment they need to do the job. One wonders if this makes it easier for ministers to face the loved ones of police officers killed on duty in Northern Ireland than soldiers killed on duty in Afghanistan.
Ministers are responsible for the decision to send troops to Afghanistan and Ministers are responsible for deciding how much money to provide the armed forces. They should pay their respects to those who have died trying to carry out those decisions. If they are confident that their objectives in Afghanistan are logical and correct, and if their consciences are clear over the money they have spent trying to achieve those objectives, then they should be happy to sit at the front of the church in a military funeral listening to the eulogies of those who have fallen trying to enact their will.
Our Prime Minister can find the time to make "surprise” visits to Afghanistan days before the Leader of the Opposition was due to make a long planned one, or during a Conservative Party conference. Is it too much to ask that he encourage his Ministers to attend the occasional funeral?
Those who have the courage to face bullets and bombs in Afghanistan should be able to do so in the knowledge that their political leaders in Britain will have the courage to attend their funeral and face their relatives if they are killed on duty.