A Londonderry man who admitted storing the gun used to murder Lyra McKee has been jailed for seven years.
fter deeming Niall Sheerin to be a “dangerous” offender, Mr Justice Fowler imposed an extended custodial sentence of seven years in prison followed by five years on licence.
The father-of-three, from Tyrconnell Street, admitted possessing a .22 calibre Hammerli self loading pistol, magazine and a quantity of .22 calibre cartridges with intent to enable another person to endanger life or cause serious damage to property on dates between September 22, 2018 and June 6, 2020.
Mt Justice Fowler said that whilst it was accepted Sheerin didn’t know the history of the gun – which included its use by the New IRA in the murder of Ms McKee – it was his view Sheerin was “an associate of a terrorist gang who posed a danger to the public”.
“He voluntarily assisted them by storing this weapon in a condition that it could be readily used again,” he said.
Ms McKee, a 29-year-old journalist and author – died after being struck by a bullet fired by a gunman as she observed rioting in the Fanad Drive area of Creggan on April 18, 2019.
Members of her family sat in the public gallery in Court 12 of Belfast Crown Court, just yards from the dock where Sheerin sat.
Speaking after the first person was sentenced for an offence linked to her death, Lyra’s sister Nichola Corner-McKee said: “Now the story of the gun has come to an end, but the story of the gunman continues.
“We would again appeal to anyone who has information on the identity of the gunman to come forward and ensure there is justice for Lyra.”
A senior PSNI detective said the firearm had a significant history of being used in a series of shootings across Derry.
Detective Superintendent Eamonn Corrigan also issued a fresh appeal for information.
He said: “Lyra McKee, at just 29 years old, died after being shot in Creggan, in Derry/Londonderry, on 18 April 2019. It’s over three years now since that tragic day, and the pain felt by Lyra’s loved ones is understandably as raw as ever.
“I want to thank members of the public for their support, and I’m keen to reassure the community that we remain committed to working with them and our partner agencies to stop the corrosive influence of terrorists.
“Our investigation into Lyra’s murder, as demonstrated by today’s sentencing, is very much active. And, with continued support, we will work tirelessly to bring those responsible before the courts.”
The court heard that the gun used in Ms McKee’s murder was recovered during a joint PSNI/Army search operation of fields in the Whitehouse Road area of Derry in June 2020.
A plastic bin-liner was found in a hole in the ground behind a telegraph pole, and the handgun and an empty magazine were located within a second bag in the bin-liner, along with loose rounds of compatible ammunition.
The items were removed, underwent forensic testing and Sheerin’s DNA was located on several areas of the gun including the safety catch.
The weapon had been used in five separate dissident attacks in Derry, and a total of five bullets were discharged from the gun and directed at police lines in Creggan on the evening Ms McKee was killed.
Following the forensic evidence, Sheerin was arrested at 7am on July 15, 2020. He gave no reply when cautioned and was interviewed seven times, during which he remained completely silent.
During the sixth interview, Sheerin provided a written statement where he denied involvement in dissident republican activity linked to the gun.
Sheerin also denied both rioting in the Fanad Drive area of Derry the night Ms McKee lost her life and having any involvement in her murder.
In the statement, Sheerin also denied touching or handling the gun and claimed he was ‘at a loss’ as to how his DNA was found on it.
Mr Justice Fowler said Sheerin’s eventual plea to possessing the gun was on the basis of ‘second limb’ with the intention to enable others to endanger life.
The judge added that while it couldn’t be established Sheerin knew of the gun’s history, he was “aware that he was in possession of and stored this weapon on behalf of a terrorist organisation, namely the New IRA in Derry.
“As a resident of Derry the defendant would have been aware of New IRA activities in this area and would have been aware that this organisation carried out gun attacks including punishment shootings in the local area as well as the shooting of Lyra McKee.”
In addition to being jailed, Sheerin will also be subject to terrorist notification requirements under the Terrorist Act for the next 15 years.