Twenty years after the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash, Belfast man Gerard McWilliams has recalled the warmth of the ‘people’s princess’ he shared precious time with – and the privilege of paying his own respects at her Westminster Abbey funeral.
Mr McWilliams met Diana through his involvement with a Barnardo’s training project in Belfast.
The princess was the president of Barnardo’s UK and worked tirelessly on behalf of the charity, and many other good causes, over many years.
On one of her visits to Northern Ireland she got talking to the young Gerard who was a teenager working as a trainee chef with Barnardo’s NI ‘Dr B’s Kitchen’ – a restaurant training young people with learning disabilities for a career in the hospitality sector.
Diana showed a great interest in the trainee programme and the pair hit it off straight away.
“I was a trainee for Dr B’s Kitchen which helped people with a learning disability through catering training and we were doing the catering for a visit by Princess Diana to Windsor Avenue [Barnardo’s] in Belfast in 1991,” he said.
I remember how powerful Diana’s brother’s speech was, and the emotion of Elton John singing Candle In The WindGerard McWilliams
“She was very friendly and very down to earth. She was very open and asking questions about what we were doing and what we were making.
“We were just talking away. I was very taken aback by her. I had always admired what she was doing, and had always wanted the opportunity to meet her.”
Mr McWilliams said: “I had done a lot of volunteer work myself and I knew she took time to support people who were vulnerable, who were on the ground, particularly homeless people.
“When I first met her I thought ‘wow, is this real, am I standing face to face with Princess Diana?’. But she was so engaging with the conversation, just talking away and very modest, and laughing and smiling.”
The teenaged trainee was inspired by Diana and in awe of how she used her position of influence to do so many positive things.
Now aged 45, he is employed as a personal and public involvement officer supporting others.
“From that training programme I ended up with a job in catering at the Northern Bank, so it was a great opportunity,” he said.
The news of Diana’s death in Paris on August 31, 1997, sent shock waves around the world but had the biggest impact on those who knew her and were most appreciative of her support.
The 36-year-old princess – often described as ‘the most photographed woman in the world’ – was killed along with Dodi al-Fayed and driver Henri Paul when their Mercedes car crashed trying to escape a pursuing pack of press photographers.
Mr McWilliams said he was stunned when he learned of her death.
“The whole week after the 31th August ... that week after I’d been woken up by the news on ITN that said Diana was in a serious car accident, I thought I was dreaming.
“About a week after the crash I got a phone call from the manager of Dr B’s Kitchen asking if I would be interested in going to Diana’s funeral. Of course I said yes and I went with a Barnardo’s training officer and we got a flight to London.”
Although still reeling from the shock of Diana’s death himself, Mr McWilliams was amazed at the public outpouring of grief he encountered in London.
“The whole atmosphere around London was just surreal with all the flowers and security but it was a great buzz,” he said.
“It was one of the major British events of the 20th century, and for me the only major one. People still talk about it as ‘the day Britain cried’ – the day that everyone was just drawn into it. I don’t think something like that will ever happen again.”
Mr McWilliams was interviewed at the time on BBC Northern Ireland and UTV, as well as being a guest on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast show. He has retained, and still treasures, his invitation to the funeral and the order of service.
“I remember sitting in Westminster Abbey thinking to myself, ‘how am I sitting here just 12 seats away from the Royal Family when I am just your average person?’. I remember how powerful Diana’s brother’s speech was, and the emotion of Elton John singing Candle In The Wind.
“I was definitely very emotional, but it’s hard to explain that there was an actual coldness as well. It was hard to describe but it was a surreal event I will never forget ... things like when the guards were coming in with the coffin.”
He added: “It was such a sad situation but it made people waken up to how strong and passionate she was about her work. She was the ‘people’s person’ who supported vulnerable people within society and that’s how I will always remember her.”