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Hundreds united in grief at funeral of Austin Hunter, a mentor, boss, friend, and proud family man

By Ivan Little

Simon Hunter's steadying hand of comfort never wavered from his mother's shoulder as she stood to pray and sing the hymns at the funeral of her husband of nearly 42 years, Austin Hunter, who was mourned by one of the largest-ever gatherings of journalists and policemen seen in Northern Ireland.

And even politicians who've been at war over the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal were united in their show of grief yesterday for Mr Hunter, the 64-year-old former BBC reporter and PR guru who was killed in a road accident in Bahrain earlier this month.

Only one row of seats in the packed Second Comber Presbyterian Church divided the First Minister Arlene Foster and the UUP leader Michael Nesbitt, who had called on his DUP counterpart to consider her position at Stormont.

Other politicians who were there included TUV leader Jim Allister and Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin and former police officers were also among the mourners as was the Rev Mervyn Gibson, the chaplain of the Orange Order for whom Mr Hunter had worked as a consultant.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who recently pulled out of a trade mission to China with Mrs Foster on medical advice, sent his apologies.

Such was the respect for the former editor of the News Letter and ex-head of PR at both the BBC and the RUC that mourners were queuing for admittance for over 90 minutes before the service was due to start.

Among the dozens of former BBC colleagues who paid their respects were Noel Thompson, Seamus McKee, Mark Carruthers and Tara Mills who were joined by Ken Reid from UTV and Tommie Gorman from RTE.

The coffin of Mr Hunter, who reported on some of the worst atrocities during the Troubles and covered countless funerals, wasn't in the church for the service.

He'd been buried at a private family committal at Clandeboye cemetery in Bangor earlier in the day.

But as the 800 mourners arrived in Comber for a service of thanksgiving in the afternoon, each and every one of them was greeted by Mr Hunter's wife Jean, son Simon, daughter Rachael and his brother Adrian.

The church wasn't able to accommodate everyone and scores of people watched a live transmission of the service in a nearby hall.

After Rachael Hunter read a passage from the Bible, her brother Simon, who has followed in his father's footsteps as a BBC reporter, delivered a moving tribute.

There was laughter as he said his dad would probably have reacted to the fact that news of his death had led TV and radio bulletins and made it on to the front pages by putting it "down to a slow news day".

He said that to many in the congregation Mr Hunter was a friend, a mentor, a confidante, a colleague, a boss, a sounding board or a team-mate, but to them he was a family man where his favourite "new" role was as grandpa to Matthew and Heidi.

Simon said that the Hunter family had taken great comfort from so many highly respected people from so many different aspects of his father's life saying so many wonderful things about him.

"We all knew dad had a wonderful career, worked for some fantastic organisations, alongside some extremely talented people.

"But it was the fact so many tributes mentioned what a good man he was, his big smile, his willingness to help people. Those were the lines we enjoyed, those are the memories we will hold dear."

Simon finished his address by borrowing a piece of advice from his father: "Dad once told me 'always leave them wanting more'. He certainly succeeded in that himself."

Mr Hunter, who was originally from Strabane, had spent most of his married life in Comber and he was an elder in the town's Second Presbyterian Church.

He had recently gone to live in Holywood where his new minister, the Rev Noble McNeely, said he celebrated the first anniversary of his move on the day he set off for Bahrain as a media consultant for Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas who send local experts to advise state bodies overseas.

Mr McNeely said that knowing Mr Hunter had enriched people's lives and he praised his talent and courage as a journalist.

Second Comber's Rev Roy Mackay said that Mr Hunter, whom he described as a people person, told him that the buzz he got from journalism had never left him.

He also disclosed that the Hunter family had chosen the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful for the service because it was written by bishop's wife Cecil Frances Alexander in a rectory which was the forerunner of the journalist's old school in Strabane.

And the first notes of the hymn were the cue for Simon Hunter's protective arm to reach out for his mother once again on this most difficult of days.

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