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Young journalist shot dead in N.Ireland honoured at funeral

Joseph STENSON
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Lyra McKee was killed on April 18, marking the latest upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland

Lyra McKee was killed on April 18, marking the latest upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland (AFP Photo/Jess LOWE)

Belfast (AFP) - The leaders of Britain and Ireland joined mourners from across Northern Ireland's political divide on Wednesday at the funeral of a young journalist killed by a dissident republican paramilitary group last week.

Lyra McKee, 29, who chronicled the troubled history of Northern Ireland, was shot in the head on Thursday as rioters clashed with police in Londonderry, the second biggest city in the British province.

Dissident republican faction the New IRA claimed responsibility on Tuesday and apologised, saying the shots had been aimed at the police.

The killing evoked memories of the three decades of violence in the province and sparked condemnation across the political spectrum, including in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar were among those to attend the poignant, music-filled ceremony at St Anne's Cathedral, alongside unionist and nationalist leaders.

"In death, Lyra has united people of many different backgrounds," Father Martin Magill told those gathered, adding he commended "our political leaders for standing together".

"I am however left with a question: '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?'" Magill said to sustained applause and a standing ovation from the 800-strong congregation.

- 'Reached across boundaries' -

McKee established her career writing about so-called "ceasefire babies" -- the generation which came of age after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended the conflict known as "The Troubles".

She was also a passionate advocate for LGBT issues, and featured in the prestigious Forbes "30 under 30" list of rising stars in the media across Europe in 2016.

"We have the power to create the kind of society that Lyra envisioned" her sister Nichola Corner said at the funeral.

"This is Lyra's legacy that we must carry forward."

McKee's coffin was driven to the grand cathedral in the city centre in a procession from her family's home in north Belfast, ahead of a private burial later Wednesday.

Her partner Sara Canning had asked that guests wear Harry Potter and Marvel superhero clothing in tribute to McKee's love of the franchises, saying she wanted it to be a "celebration of her life".

Crowds who gathered outside the cathedral, some holding the rainbow flags of gay pride others wearing Harry Potter scarves, broke into applause as her coffin was carried inside by six pallbearers.

Members of the National Union of Journalists, to which McKee belonged, formed a guard of honour.

The organisation encouraged colleagues across Britain to mark her life with a "symbolic act solidarity", which included a vigil at St Bride's Church in London, known as the "Journalists' Church".

An online fundraising campaign to help McKee's family with funeral expenses and legacy projects passed £60,000.

- 'Pointless and futile act' -

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

"It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years," the statement said.

The New IRA offered its "full and sincere apologies", saying McKee was unintentionally shot as its forces targeted police.

The splinter group seeks the integration of British-ruled Northern Ireland with Ireland -- rejecting mainstream non-violent political campaigns to achieve that end.

The group has been condemned by republican leaders, with Sinn Fein head Mary Lou McDonald saying it was "tiny, unrepresentative group" that was "essentially at war now with their own community".

Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday suspended the accounts of dissident republican party Saoradh, which is supported by the New IRA.

A Twitter spokesperson said: "We have clear terms of service in place which we enforce when violations are identified."

Three people -- two men aged 18 and 19 and then a 57-year-old woman -- so far arrested by Northern Irish police in connection with McKee's killing have all been released without charge.

Her death follows a spate of letter bombings and a car bombing, also claimed by the New IRA.

It has fuelled fears that the political turbulence over Brexit -- which threatens new border checkpoints on the Irish border -- may increase paramilitary activity.