UK, Irish leaders mourn murdered journalist Lyra McKee

McKee was shot dead while observing a riot in Londonderry, also known as Derry, in Northern Ireland.

    UK, Irish leaders mourn murdered journalist Lyra McKee
    Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Ireland's President Michael D Higgins attend the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee [Charles McQuillan/Reuters]

    The leaders of Britain and Ireland have joined hundreds of mourners at the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee, whose killing by an Irish dissident republican group during a riot has sparked outrage in Northern Ireland.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Ireland's President, Michael D Higgins, were among hundreds of people on Wednesday celebrating the life of McKee, who was shot dead by paramilitary gunfire last week.

    The New IRA group, which opposes Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, has said one of its members shot 29-year-old McKee dead in Londonderry, also known as Derry, on Thursday when opening fire on police officers during a riot McKee was watching. The group has not identified the shooter.

    "In death, Lyra has united people of many different backgrounds," Roman Catholic priest Father Martin Magill told those attending the service at the St. Anne's Cathedral in Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast, pleading with those behind her murder to take the road of non-violence.

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    McKee was the first journalist killed on the job in the United Kingdom for almost 20 years, and her death caused wide shock in a region still shaken by tremors from decades of violence.

    In his homily, Magill said McKee's death should be "the doorway to a new beginning" for Northern Ireland.

    He praised the united response of politicians, but asked: "Why in God's name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?" - as mourners rose to their feet to applaud.

    The province's power-sharing government has been suspended for two years because of a dispute between the main Protestant and Catholic political parties.

    Representatives from Northern Ireland's six main political parties all attended the funeral, having issued a rare joint statement in condemnation of the killing.

    'Peace and dialogue'

    On Wednesday, other vigils were also held in different cities across Ireland and Britain, including Dublin, Glasgow and London.

    Dozens gathered to pay their respects to the writer and LGBT rights activist at London's St Bride's Church, known as the "journalists' church" for its long association with members of the media. 

    "Lyra Mckee's photo sits beside those of other journalists who have died in the line of duty as she has," Al Jazeera's Nadim Baba, reporting from the vigil, said.

    "There were tributes from the National Union of Journalists, who have set up a crowdfunding appeal for her family, and there was a message from Lyra McKee's partner Sara, as well as her family, thanking the NUJ," he added. 

    A friend of Lyra McKee holds an order of service as she attends her funeral at St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast [Charles McQuillan/Getty Images]

    The killing, which followed a large car bomb in Londonderry in January that police also blamed on the New IRA, has raised fears that small marginalised armed groups are exploiting a two-year political vacuum in Northern Ireland and tensions caused by Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

    The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and most other paramilitary groups have disarmed since Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, but a small number of dissidents refused to abandon violence, and have targeted police and prison officials in bombings and shootings.

    The New IRA acknowledged responsibility for McKee's death, saying she was shot accidentally "while standing beside enemy forces" - a reference to the British police.

    Police arrested two teenagers and a 57-year-old woman but released all three without charge.

    Security officials have warned that political drift in Northern Ireland and uncertainty around Brexit could embolden those bent on violence.

    "Even though McKee has been killed, many people are hoping that through her writings and her work, her message of urging people that peace and dialogue is the way forward, that somehow something good will come out of this tragedy," said Al Jazeera's Baba. 

    Rising journalist

    McKee was a rising star in journalism and had been published in the Belfast Telegraph and The Atlantic. She had written a book, Angels with Blue Faces, about a political murder that took place during the Troubles, Northern Ireland's 30-year period of sectarian conflict between largely Catholic republicans, who wanted to reunite Ireland as one country, and mostly Protestant unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British. A second book was due to be published next year.

    She had written powerfully about growing up gay in Northern Ireland and the struggles of the "ceasefire babies," the generation raised after the 1998 Good Friday accord that ended the Troubles, during which 3,700 people died.

    McKee's family described her as a smart, strong-minded woman who believed passionately in justice, inclusivity and truth, and would not wish ill on anyone.

    "Lyra's answer would have been simple, the only way to overcome hatred and intolerance is with love, understanding and kindness," they said in a statement issued before the Belfast funeral.

    A close friend, Stephen Lusty, told mourners that McKee had intended to propose next month to her partner, Sara Canning, who encouraged friends to wear Harry Potter- and Marvel Comics-themed clothes to the service in tribute to Lyra's love of both.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies