Northern Ireland’s rowing political parties will meet for talks for the first time in more than a year – days after the priest at murdered Lyra McKee’s funeral lambasted them.
An agreement has been reached to hold a string of meetings next month, Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have said in a joint statement.
Power-sharing talks failed last time in a row over Sinn Fein’s wish for an Irish language act and the DUP’s opposition to same-sex marriage and piling on pressure Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said today: ‘The excuses need to end.’
And Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said: ‘Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland, and her tragic death cannot be in vain. All of us must take inspiration from what Lyra achieved in her life and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone.’
The news of talks, two years and three months after the Stormont Assembly collapsed, came days after the funeral of Miss McKee, whose murder by the New IRA increased pressure on leaders to break the political deadlock.
At her funeral Father Martin Magill sparked a standing ovations when he demanded to know why it had taken the horror of her death to unite politicians and urged them to protect the Good Friday agreement.
May and Varadkar said today they had heard ‘the unmistakable message to all political leaders that people across Northern Ireland want to see a new momentum for political progress. We agree that what is now needed is actions and not just words from all of us who are in positions of leadership’.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minster Theresa May, pictured in Belfast this week, have announced talks in Northern Ireland to restore the Stormont Assembly will start after the local elections in the UK
Arlene Fosters said yesterday journalist Lyra McKee was murdered New IRA dissidents in Londonderry to further ‘their own warped political agenda’ – not because of a ‘political vacuum’
The coffin of journalist Lyra McKee is taken out of the church after the funeral as Lyra McKee’s partner Sara Canning (behind, L) follows
In a joint press conference in Belfast with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley announced that talks on the restoration of power-sharing institutions will resume on May 7.
Ms Bradley said the ‘sickening’ murder of journalist Lyra McKee had ‘deeply shocked everyone across the world’.
‘Lyra was a brilliant, talented journalist, a role model for many, who always fought to make Northern Ireland a better place,’ said Ms Bradley.
Priest Father Martin Magill told mourners: ‘I commend our political leaders for standing together. Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her?’
‘Since Lyra’s death, communities across Northern Ireland and the political spectrum have come together, united in condemnation at this murderous act.
‘They have delivered a clear message – the people responsible for this act of terrorism have absolutely nothing to offer Northern Ireland and have no place in society.’
She added: ‘Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland and her tragic death cannot be in vain.
‘All of us must take inspiration from what Lyra achieved in her life and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone.’
Mr Coveney said: ‘This can be done. When you think about the agreement that was made 21 years ago and the obstacles they needed to overcome then, the challenges we face today pale into the background in comparison.
‘Yes, we have difficult choices to make. The polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland, particularly in the last 12 months, poses real challenges. There are trust issues – let’s not pretend there isn’t – and we will have to try to overcome them.
‘But having spoken to all the parties in the last few days, I believe there is an appetite to try and I can tell you the two governments are determined to assist that process in a way that will get it across the line.’
Mr Coveney said the governments had deliberately not set a deadline for the completion of talks, as this would not be ‘helpful’.
He said: ‘Time is short here and we will need to make this process work within weeks, rather than months.’
He said that it was hoped that progress will have been made by the time of the planned review at the end of May and that ‘hopefully shortly after that we can find agreement’.
Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley spoke in Belfats today and Ms Bradley said: ‘Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland, and her tragic death cannot be in vain’
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s leader Mary Lou McDonald were among those giving a standing ovation to priest Father Martin Magill who questioned why it took a tragedy such as this to bring political leaders together
Most of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups have disarmed since a 1998 peace accord ended three decades of sectarian conflict. But a small number of dissidents refused to abandon violence, and have targeted police and prison officials in bombings and shootings.
Security officials have repeatedly warned that political drift in Northern Ireland – along with uncertainty around Brexit – could embolden those bent on reviving violence.
Arlene Foster yesterday denied Miss McKee was murdered because of the ‘political vacuum’ in Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader looked uncomfortable as Mrs Foster sat next to Sinn Fein leaders Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald at the Protestant St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, and they were also forced to stand and clap.
Father Martin Magill received a spontaneous standing ovation as he called her senseless killing a ‘huge injustice’ and said he ‘dared to hope’ something so awful as Lyra’s murder could be a ‘doorway to a new beginning’.
Mrs Foster said today ‘I don’t accept that the violence that caused Lyra’s death was caused by a political vacuum. It was caused by people who wanted to use violence to further their own warped political agenda. That’s why Lyra is dead’.
She also said she sympathised with Lyra McKee’s partner, but said the party’s stance on gay marriage will not change.
She told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland: ‘We have a long standing policy which hasn’t changed. That remains the position of the party.
‘That doesn’t mean I cannot sympathise and empathise with Sara and say to her that we feel her love. Her loss was all of our loss because this was a young woman who was doing great things in journalism and living her life in a city that she adopted.
‘You shouldn’t conflate the two issues of empathy and sympathy and a political issue which is the definition of marriage.’
Father Martin Magill said yesterday he ‘dared to hope’ something so awful as Lyra’s murder could be a ‘doorway to a new beginning’.
He said: ‘Since Thursday night we have seen the coming together of many people in various places and the unifying of the community against violence. I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday.’
He then added: ‘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?’
Miss McKee was gunned down while observing rioting in Londonderry. She was standing next to a police patrol when she was struck by a bullet. The New IRA terrorist group has confessed that its members killed her.
Yesterday’s congregation included politicians from across Ireland’s political divide, including the heads of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, whose power-sharing deal has broken down, leaving Northern Ireland without a working government.
Miss McKee’s family – who are Catholic – said they chose the cathedral for the funeral because of its reputation as a ‘shared space’ in the divided city.
Theresa May, who missed Prime Minister’s Questions to attend the two-hour service, sat in the front row on one side of the cathedral, flanked by Irish president Michael D Higgins and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar. Jeremy Corbyn sat a couple of rows behind.
Father Magill also called on Miss McKee’s murderers to follow her example of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
He quoted a friend of Miss McKee’s who said: ‘We have had enough. There is a younger generation coming up in the town and they don’t need guns put in their hands. They need jobs, they need a better health service and education. They need a life.’
As the 1,000-strong congregation broke into applause, Father Magill addressed her killers, saying: ‘I plead with you to take the road of non-violence to achieve your political ends.’
Theresa May, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (right) and Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley attend the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee
Miss McKee’s partner Sara Canning, 35, cries at the service of thanksgiving for the life of the 29-year-old journalist. Mrs Foster said the DUP’s stance on gay marriage remains unchanged
A map which shows the timings of the riots in Londonderry. Miss McKee was shot in the head by a gunman firing indiscriminately at police
Miss McKee’s death on the republican Creggan housing estate came as a mob threw fireworks and petrol bombs as they rioted in the streets on Thursday night. Miss McKee’s mother Joan, 68, brothers Gary, 47, and David, 41, sisters Joan Hunter, 46, Nichola Corner, 44, and Mary Crossan, 39, sat in the front row of the other side of the cathedral. They were joined by other relatives including Miss McKee’s great-niece Ava, four, and the partner she had hoped to marry – Sara Canning, 35. Mrs Corner told the congregation how the death of ‘our wee Lyra’, the youngest of the six siblings, will leave an ‘unfillable hole in our mum’s life’.
But she hoped her sister’s lasting legacy would lead to people trying to create a world where ‘labels are meaningless’, where ‘every single person is valued’ and ‘where every single child gets the chance to grow up and to make their dreams come true’.
Quoting Miss McKee herself, Mrs Corner said: ‘We must change our own world one piece at a time. Now let’s get to work.’
Many friends of Miss McKee, who was a campaigner for LGBT rights, wore Harry Potter-themed T-shirts, scarves and badges to the service in honour of her lifelong love of JK Rowling’s books.
Outside, a crowd of several hundred people applauded as it was driven away for a private burial in a hearse with rainbow-coloured flowers on its roof which spelled out the words ‘Team Lyra’.