Ben Lowry: Why I winced at the applause during priest’s criticism of politicians at Lyra McKee funeral

Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald, centre left and centre right, at St Anne's Cathedral for Lyra McKee's funeral, during the awkward moment just after Father Magill criticised politicians and got a standing ovation
Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald, centre left and centre right, at St Anne's Cathedral for Lyra McKee's funeral, during the awkward moment just after Father Magill criticised politicians and got a standing ovation
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The moment at Lyra McKee’s funeral when Father Martin Magill challenged local politicians was one of those times when crowds are uncannily fast in their reaction.

It was akin to those humorous situations in which someone is making a speech and says something so recognisably funny that the audience begins to laugh before the punchline is even completed.

Fr Magill began his comment. “I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday,” he said.

With hindsight, it was his use of the word ‘however’ in the next sentence that put mourners on guard for where he was going with his remarks.

He said: “I am, however, left with a question: Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman —?”

That was as far as he got in the sentence before applause broke out the vast church, which holds almost 1,000 people. I was one of the people standing near a pillar in the middle on Wednesday because all the seats were taken (when applause ended, Fr Magill finished the sentence “... the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point”).

Outside, the applause had also begun before he finished.

Inside, as the applause held its force, I saw that people all round me were rising to their feet.

The mourners were Catholic, Protestant, gay activists, young people of Lyra’s generation, older people, PSNI personnel, republicans, journalists, and so on.

Given that people of such a wide variety of backgrounds reacted in the same way spontaneously, it is reasonable to assume that much of the population of Northern Ireland would have done likewise.

I did not enjoy the moment, in part because I dislike the growing tendency for crowds to applaud in situations where they never previously did, including religious ceremonies and parliamentary sittings.

Many years ago relatives of mine who lived in America for a while before returning to Northern Ireland commented on how easily US audiences break into ovations. This, they noticed, happened less in NI, and it meant the applause was more meaningful when it did occur.

But the main reason I winced was the inappropriateness of any public shaming (however unintended).

Fr Magill did recognise that politicians have a difficult job (I would add that very few members of the public would let themselves to be subject to the strains and abuse that the politicians for whom they vote endure).

While I am fiercely critical of the political impasse, I nonetheless shuddered at the humiliation the political leaders were experiencing up at the front of the cathedral. I could only see the back of their heads, but had no doubt everyone was looking towards them. Seeing TV footage later confirmed as much.

I rarely agree with a republican satirist who goes by the pen name ‘Squinter’, but sympathised with his tweet: ‘I thought Fr Magill’s words at St Anne’s today were hugely inappropriate, placing two unwitting women who came to offer support and sympathy in a humiliating position. That should not happen in a church. Ever’

Fr Magill must have been aware that his comment was stinging, but that does not mean he foresaw the impact of his comment.

Anyone who has ever said words in public, at a wedding or funeral or any other situation, will know that you can never — never — be sure how particular remarks will be received by the audience.

A speaker might say something that they consider to be hilarious, and assume it will raise a laugh, but then be met with unamused silence.

Or sometimes a speaker will include a comment that is only meant to be mildly funny but in fact triggers loud and unexpected laughter.

Regardless of Fr Magill’s intentions, the response to his words focused on the reaction of the people who were perceived to be his targets.

Some observers implied that Mrs Foster reacted ungraciously by not applauding or rising to her feet.

In fact, as the footage shows, and as I remember from being in the hall, the ovation began sporadically, as ovations do, and spread from back to front. Mrs Foster rose to her feet moments after Mary Lou McDonald beside her. She then slapped the back of her hand in gentle applause.

Knowing whether to applaud a reference to oneself is tricky. If a judge at, say, a dancing competition, praises one contender and then the other, applauding might look like self-praise but not applauding might look sour or mean.

If Mrs Foster failed to applaud Fr Magill’s comment she would look defensive, if she applauded keenly she would look arrogantly oblivious to the implied criticism.

The web version of this article will include a link to the TV clip, which captures the general awkwardness. The US consul general, Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, seems almost startled by the priest’s comments, then glances down, as if unsure where to look, and then – a good diplomat – joins the applause when everyone else has done so, and so does not seem to be endorsing criticism.

In his address, Fr Magill was withering about the killers and unequivocal in his call for people to help police (it reminded me of bitter denunciations of the IRA during the Troubles by some Catholic priests at funerals of their victims).

But there were two further reasons I thought that moment of unintended humiliation unjust. The first was the fact that the DUP, whatever its failures, never collapsed Stormont — a grave abuse of mandatory coalition. In fact, after 2007 it did somersaults to save devolution at times of republican misconduct.

The second was the fact that there were people at that funeral who were in no position to be critical of anyone else. Simon Coveney, for example, had criticised London’s detention of Tony Taylor, the IRA terrorist who abused his release on licence by returning to violence. Mr Coveney said his detention added to tensions in the Northwest (ie it’s Britain’s fault).

And Martina Anderson has campaigned against the extradition to Lithuania of Liam Campbell, the man found civilly liable of the Omagh bomb dissident mass murder.

If anyone should approach the funeral of a dissident terrorist murder victim with humility, it is people such as them.

They certainly should not be applauding anyone else’s shortcomings.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor