Hard Questions for Northern Ireland’s Leaders at Funeral for Lyra McKee, Writer and Activist

The killing of Lyra McKee has prompted a backlash against the IRA splinter group responsible for her death, as well as the region’s political leaders.

Londonderry unrest. Friends of murdered journalist Lyra McKee defaced the walls of a dissident republican office in Derry with red paint. Picture date: Monday April 22, 2019. See PA story ULSTER Unrest. Photo credit should read: Cate McCurry/PA Wire URN:42460215 (Press Association via AP Images)
Friends of Lyra McKee, a journalist killed by an IRA splinter group, defaced the walls of a party that supports it on Monday in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo: Press Association via AP Images

The killing of Lyra McKee, a Northern Irish writer and LGBTQ activist who was gunned down last week while covering a nationalist riot in Derry, has prompted a backlash against the Irish Republican Army splinter group responsible for her death, as well as the region’s political leaders, who have allowed the peace process to stall.

The visceral disgust at the politicians spilled over during the 29-year-old writer’s funeral in her native Belfast on Wednesday. Martin Magill, a Catholic priest who helped lead the service at a Protestant cathedral, in a cross-community celebration of McKee’s life, praised the leaders of the region’s two largest parties, Arlene Foster of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Mary Lou McDonald of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein, for appearing together after the killing.

“I am, however, left with a question,” Magill said, as the live television broadcast of the funeral focused on Foster and McDonald sitting next to one another in the congregation. “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?” he asked. The mourners, including the leaders of Ireland and the United Kingdom, Leo Varadkar and Theresa May, responded with a standing ovation.

Foster and McDonald have spent more than two years failing to resolve differences — over issues like the use of the Irish language and the ban on same-sex marriage — that led to the collapse of a regional power-sharing executive, which requires the agreement of both communities to function and was a cornerstone of the peace deal that ended three decades of war in 1998.

Leona O’Neill, a fellow journalist who witnessed McKee’s killing, said on Tuesday that dissidents opposed to the peace process, like the IRA splinter group that killed McKee while aiming at the local police force, channeled frustration at the stalled peace process. “We’ve been sitting here for two years now with no government and the void that has been created by that has allowed malicious groups to thrive and grow in that vacuum that has been created by our political stalemate,” O’Neill told BBC Radio 4.

Those tensions have been exacerbated by the looming threat of Brexit, which could undermine the still-fragile peace in Northern Ireland by closing off its currently open border with the Republic of Ireland after the region exits the European Union with the rest of the U.K.

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - This undated handout photo provided by PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) shows journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed in a shooting on April 18, 2019 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Journalist and Author Lyra McKee was killed in a 'terror incident' while reporting from the scene of rioting in Derry's Creggan neighbourhood after police raided properties in the Mulroy Park and Galliagh area on the night of Thursday 18th April 2019.  Reports say that she was killed as shots were fired from a single gun. Lyra McKee was well known for covering the lasting trauma and the violence of the Northern Ireland Troubles. (Photo by PSNI via Getty Images)

Lyra McKee, 29, a writer and activist for LGBTQ rights in Northern Ireland, was killed last Thursday while reporting on rioting in the city of Derry.

Photo: PSNI via Getty Images

Earlier in the week, McKee’s friends had demonstrated their disgust with supporters of the group calling itself the New IRA by bringing red paint to the headquarters of the fringe political party that speaks for it — Saoradh, which means “liberation” in Irish — and smearing its walls with blood-red handprints.

Video of the protest recorded by O’Neill showed how the women faced down supporters of the group that killed their friend, even calling them “murdering bastards” to their faces.


One of McKee’s friends, Sinead Quinn, scoffed at the notion that the killing was accidental. “You don’t shoot somebody accidentally — when you put a gun into a child’s hand and they shoot it, that’s murder.”

“That’s not a representation either of the republican people of this town,” Quinn said, referring to Irish nationalists who want the North to reunite with the Republic of Ireland but have renounced violence. Pointing at the men defending the headquarters during the protest, Quinn added, “I came from a republican family, I have republican relatives, and those people standing there don’t represent that either. They absolutely don’t. Nobody, nobody can advocate shooting into a crowd of people.”

Another of McKee’s friends, the writer Susan McKay, rejected the semi-apology to her family offered by the New IRA.

“There isn’t any apology that’s capable of covering the appallingness of what they’ve done. They need to disband,” McKay told BBC Northern Ireland. “There isn’t any apology that’s good enough. What are they saying sorry for? They shouldn’t even be there. What do they represent? They claim to represent idealism. They don’t represent idealism. Lyra represented idealism.”

Those sentiments were echoed online by prominent figures, including Paddy Kielty, a comedian from Northern Ireland whose father was killed by unionist paramilitaries a decade before the peace agreement.

McKee’s death was marked in vigils across the islands of Ireland and Great Britain on Wednesday. Outside the cathedral in Belfast, an honor guard from the National Union of Journalists lined the steps.

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