LONDON (AP) — The killing of journalist Lyra McKee must be a turning point for Northern Ireland, a priest said Wednesday at a funeral service attended by British and Irish leaders alongside mourners in superhero T-shirts and colorful Harry Potter scarves.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Ireland's President, Michael D. Higgins, were among hundreds of people celebrating the life of McKee, who was shot dead by paramilitary gunfire last week. She was the first journalist killed on the job in the U.K. for almost 20 years, and her death caused wide shock in a region still shaken by tremors from decades of violence.
British opposition leaders and the heads of Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant political parties also attended a service at St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast led by Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy. Some of McKee's family and friends wore Harry Potter and Marvel Comics items in tribute to her love of those fictional worlds.
McKee, 29, was killed Thursday as she covered anti-police rioting in the city of Londonderry, also known as Derry. A small Irish nationalist militant group, the New IRA, said it was responsible.
In his homily, Father Martin Magill said McKee's death should be "the doorway to a new beginning" for Northern Ireland.
He praised the united response of politicians, but asked: "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?" — as mourners rose to their feet to applaud.
"To those who had any part in her murder, I encourage you to reflect on Lyra McKee, journalist and writer, as a powerful example of 'The pen is mightier than the sword,'" Magill said.
"I plead with you to take the road of non-violence to achieve your political ends."
The IRA and most other paramilitary groups have disarmed since Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, but a small number of dissidents refused to abandon violence, and have targeted police and prison officials in bombings and shootings.
The New IRA, the largest of the splinter groups, has been blamed for a January car bomb outside a Derry courthouse and letter bombs sent to transit hubs in Britain last month. No one was injured in either attack.
The group acknowledged responsibility for McKee's death, saying she was shot accidentally "while standing beside enemy forces" — a reference to the police.
Police arrested two teenagers and a 57-year-old woman but released all three without charge.
Security officials have warned that political drift in Northern Ireland and uncertainty around Brexit could embolden those bent on violence.
Northern Ireland's power-sharing government has been suspended for two years because of a dispute between the main Protestant and Catholic political parties.
The U.K.'s planned departure from the EU has revived fears of a return to border checks between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland. Customs posts or other infrastructure along the 300-mile (500-kilometer) frontier would disrupt people and businesses on both sides and could become a target of attack.
Britain, the EU and Ireland all say there will be no hard border, but it remains unclear how that will be achieved.
McKee was a rising star of journalism who had been published in the Belfast Telegraph and The Atlantic and wrote a book, "Angels with Blue Faces," about a Troubles-era political murder. A second book was due to be published next year.
She had written powerfully about growing up gay in Northern Ireland and the struggles of the "cease-fire babies," the generation raised after the 1998 Good Friday accord that ended three decades of sectarian conflict in which 3,700 people died.
"We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us," McKee wrote in 2016.
Friend Stephen Lusty said McKee "embodied the future of finding commonality, enjoying difference in others." He said she had planned to propose to her partner, Sara Canning.
McKee's sister, Nichola Corner, told mourners that "within each of us we have the power to create the kind of society that Lyra envisioned."
"One where labels are meaningless. One where every single person is valued. ... This is Lyra's legacy that we must carry forward," she said.