Mourners at the funeral of Lyra McKee have implored politicians to turn the journalist’s murder into a turning point for Northern Ireland.
Clerics, friends and relatives of McKee issued blunt, impassioned appeals to Theresa May and other party leaders who attended the service in Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral on Wednesday, urging them to convert the shock at her killing into a transformative moment.
“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 us to this point?” said Fr Martin Magill, addressing a congregation which included a rare gathering of all Northern Ireland’s main political players. His rebuke electrified the service.
“Many of us will be praying that Lyra’s death in its own way will not have been in vain and will contribute in some way to building peace here,” he said, alluding to Northern Ireland’s political deadlock. “I dare to hope that Lyra’s murder on Holy Thursday night can be the doorway to a new beginning.”
The New IRA, a dissident republican splinter group, shot McKee last Thursday while she observed rioting in Derry. The group has apologised and said its gunman was aiming at police.
Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday suspended the social media accounts of Saoradh, a revolutionary socialist party affiliated with the New IRA. A public backlash saw activists smear red handprints on the walls of Saoradh’s Derry office.
Republican and loyalist paramilitaries have murdered a handful of other people in recent years with limited public outcry, but McKee’s killing has triggered widespread grief, anger and calls for political change.
About 600 people packed St Anne’s Cathedral with hundreds more outside, some in tears, following the service on loudspeakers. Simultaneous vigils were held in London, Dublin and across Northern Ireland.
Sombre applause greeted the coffin’s arrival. Wreaths on the hearse spelled out “Team Lyra” in the rainbow colours of McKee’s LGBTQ community.
Members of the National Union of Journalists formed a guard of honour. The number of dignitaries gave it the feel of a state funeral.
Theresa May delegated prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons to her deputy, David Lidington, to attend the service.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Karen Bradley, the Irish PM, Leo Varadkar, the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, and the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, filed into the cathedral alongside McKee’s friends and relatives, some of whom wore Harry Potter and Marvel character-themed outfits to celebrate McKee’s passion for pop culture.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), sat beside Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, the leaders of Sinn Féin.
McKee is survived by her mother, two brothers and three sisters. They are from a Catholic background but chose a Protestant cathedral for a cross-community, multi-cultural service.
Paying tribute to her late sister, Nichola Corner said Lyra was the youngest sibling and had left an “an unfillable hole” in their mother’s life. When she urged people to create a new society in her sister’s memory, the congregation gave a standing ovation.
Stephen Forde, the dean of St Anne’s, said McKee broke down barriers and reached across boundaries. “This was her hallmark in life, this is her legacy in death.”
Fr Magill paid tribute to McKee’s playful spirit, recalling she once tweeted him a picture of herself with a nun’s veil, a glass of cider and a proposal: “Got roped into performing as part of a Sister Act tribute for Foyle hospice … you need any help with mass tomorrow?”
Magill begged the assembled politicians to emulate McKee’s dogged approach to journalism – such as tracking children lost during the Troubles. “I pray that Lyra’s murder may be the catalyst needed for parties to start talking, to reform that which was corrosive in previous assembles and to begin anew.”
In his eulogy Stephen Lusty, a friend of McKee, said her legacy should be an end to the political void. “Today we grieve but tomorrow let us fill that hole by adopting Lyra’s future and vision.”
Northern Ireland lost its government in 2017 when acrimony between Sinn Féin and the DUP collapsed power-sharing at Stormont. The executive and assembly remain mothballed, creating a vacuum in the midst of existential questions over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future.
The DUP’s sway over the Conservative party, Brexit uncertainty, upcoming local elections, unresolved atrocities from the Troubles and a pending report into the cash-for-ash scandal present formidable obstacles to the resumption of power-sharing.
“There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic but there will never be a moment when it won’t be bumpy,” said Katy Hayward, a Queen’s University Belfast academic and author of Bordering on Brexit. “This is a political moment that must be seized.”
In interviews, younger mourners appeared cautiously hopeful McKee’s death would galvanise action.
“I don’t know if Northern Ireland is worth it but I really hope it can show it is,” said Connaire McCullough, 36, a close friend of McKee.
“People will look to the more moderate parties,” said Jane Morrow, 36.
Older mourners, however, predicted that the political solidarity on display in St Anne’s Cathedral would quickly fade.
“Too many people set in their ways. It’ll go back to business as usual,” said Sam Lindsay, 53, a van driver.
Agnes Patterson, 76, a retired teacher, said lack of trust between politicians seeped down into society, a lesson from previous atrocities. “We’ve seen other people dead and thought it would bring politicians together. Didn’t happen.”
McKee was buried at Carnmoney cemetery.