Police in Northern Ireland have issued a call for peace in memory of the journalist Lyra McKee, who died after being shot during rioting in Derry on Thursday night.
Evoking the 29-year-old’s own words about the power of conversation, police encouraged relatives of dissident republicans, who have been blamed for shooting McKee, to urge to their family members to step away from violence and pursue peace.
The heartfelt appeal follows a rare joint statement by leaders from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland condemning the murder as “an attack on the peace and democratic processes” on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.
At a vigil in Derry on Friday, McKee’s partner Sara Canning said the shooting had deprived her of the women she had thought she was “bound to grow old with”, adding: “Lyra’s death must not be in vain”.
Police confirmed they were looking for multiple suspects in connection with the killing of McKee, who died after being shot during a night of clashes in which petrol bombs were thrown and vehicles hijacked. McKee made her name writing about growing up gay in Belfast, and published investigative pieces with BuzzFeed and the Atlantic.
Witnesses said a masked gunman fired in the direction of police while journalists and members of the public stood nearby. Police called it a terrorist incident and said they had launched a murder investigation.
The Belfast-born investigative reporter has been praised as a person of courage and integrity in tributes. The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said McKee “changed lives as she lived and will do so again in death”, while the head of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet, said she was “a journalist of courage, style and integrity”.
McKee was rushed to hospital in the back of a police Land Rover ater the shooting but died of her injuries. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said it believed the New IRA was behind the attack.
Saoradh, a fringe political party that reflects New IRA thinking, said blame for the events of Thursday evening lay “squarely at the feet of the British crown forces”. It added: “A republican volunteer attempted to defend people from the PSNI/RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary]. Tragically a young journalist covering the events, Lyra McKee, was killed accidentally.”
In a joint statement, the leaders of all of Northern Ireland’s major political parties condemned the murder “in the strongest terms possible” and added: “Lyra’s murder was also an attack on all the people of this community, an attack on the peace and democratic processes.
“We are united in rejecting those responsible for this heinous crime.”
Theresa May called the killing “shocking and truly senseless”, adding: “She was a journalist who died doing her job with great courage.”
Varadkar said: “We cannot allow those who want to propagate violence, fear and hate to drag us back to the past.”
Trouble flared when police entered the Creggan estate, a traditional republican stronghold, at around 9pm to search for guns and explosives which they said were being stored for planned attacks over the Easter weekend, when republicans mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
A crowd gathered and police said up to 50 petrol bombs were thrown. Two vehicles were hijacked and set on fire. By 11pm about 100 people, including journalists, had gathered on the streets when shots were fired.
Leona O’Neill, a Derry-based journalist, tweeted she was standing beside McKee when McKee fell beside a police Land Rover. “I called an ambulance for her but police put her in the back of their vehicle and rushed her to hospital where she died. Just 29 years old. Sick to my stomach tonight.”
Mobile phone footage obtained by RTÉ News suggested there were at least two gunshots. The footage also showed two masked men appearing to pick up empty bullet casings. A male voice can be heard saying: “They’ve shot somebody.”
A resident, Emmet Doyle, said in a Facebook post that children were among those gathered in Fanad Drive when the shooting happened. “A masked figure stopped at the bottom of the road and fired shots up towards the Land Rovers. We all turned and ran, I stopped beside the Land Rover nearer the top of the street and a girl beside me dropped to the ground.”
The leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Arlene Foster, tweeted: “Heartbreaking news. A senseless act. A family has been torn apart.”
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, condemned the killing and said it was a senseless loss of life by “so-called dissidents” who opposed the peace process.
Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Those responsible for last night’s violence have nothing to offer anyone in Northern Ireland. Their intolerable actions are rejected by the overwhelming majority of people.”
The US House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who visited Stormont on Friday to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, paid tribute to McKee. “Sadly, we join you, on the sadness, the tragedy that happened last night, we extend our condolences to the family. Coming on Good Friday it is especially poignant,” she said.
Séamus Dooley, the Irish secretary of the NUJ, described McKee as a journalist of courage, style and integrity.
McKee became prominent after publishing a blogpost in 2014 called “Letter to My 14-year-old Self” in which she wrote about growing up gay in Belfast. It was turned into a short film.
In 2016 Forbes magazine named her one of the “30 under 30 in media”, citing her passion for digging into topics that others did not care about.
McKee went on to write a book, Angels With Blue Faces, and also wrote for various publications, usually long, investigative pieces. She recently signed a two-book deal with Faber & Faber.
Her last tweet on Thursday, read: “Derry tonight. Absolute madness.”
The New IRA has been active in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city. It detonated a large car bomb outside the courthouse in January.
The group emerged in 2012 via a merger of several groups opposed to the peace process, including the Real IRA. It has been linked to the murder of two prison officers and several other attacks.