Image Credit: International Journalism Festival
On Good Friday, the world woke up to the news that a young journalist had been murdered on the streets of Derry while covering the riots there. Perhaps onlookers were not overly surprised that a young journalist had been killed in a historically troubled area; but, for the people of Northern Ireland, the murder of Lyra McKee provoked fear that peace is under threat.
Lyra McKee was a 29-year old journalist, killed by dissident Republicans participating in riots in Creggan, Derry. The timing of her death, the night before Good Friday, was particularly poignant. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles. Lyra was what she called a “ceasefire baby”; she wrote in a piece: “We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace.” Yet, despite the promises made, Lyra wasn’t safe from violence, and was killed by those who aim to derail the peace in NI while doing her job as a journalist.
I grew up in Northern Ireland and am eight years younger than Lyra; I can attest that, certainly for my generation, “the Troubles” seems well-confined to the past. While there are obvious remnants of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, that there was a time when bomb alerts were daily, and shoppers were security searched, seems alien. For many generations before mine, they grew up with constant headlines of sectarian violence which pervaded the North of Ireland. Instead, I grew up watching news about the shared government between Unionists and Nationalists.
Lyra’s generation and my own grew up with the optimistic backdrop of the peace process. Yet, given recent developments, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of Northern Ireland. Lyra’s murder was like something from the darkest days of the Trouble. The dissident Republican “New IRA” have claimed responsibility for her death, but there is nothing new about the hateful ideas they profess. Saraodh, a dissident Republican party, issued a half-hearted apology for the “accidental” death of Lyra, who, in their twisted version of events, was killed by “a republican volunteer attempted to defend people from the PSNI/ RUC”. This statement echoes those made by paramilitaries in the Troubles, who would always defend the murders of ordinary people on the basis that it was an “accident” on the way to the goal of killing “legitimate targets”. This depressing rhetoric drags Northern Ireland back to a time when the supposed “accidental” deaths of innocent people was commonplace.
In addition to Lyra’s tragic death, the once highly-regarded shared government in Stormont has been suspended for over two years. Politicians in the North of Ireland seem in no rush to re-establish the shared government, considered a bedrock of peace.
Perhaps there is every reason to be depressed about Northern Ireland’s future, certainly when I woke up to the news of Lyra’s death I felt emotionally drained. But it is the life of Lyra McKee and others like her that gives me hope for Northern Ireland.
When those in Great Britain and beyond think of Northern Ireland, I imagine two prevalent images come to mind; paramilitary men in masks and, in recent times, the MPs of the DUP with their naysaying social conservatism. These people are not Northern Ireland; Lyra is Northern Ireland.
Lyra was a talented young journalist. She wrote for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic’s website, among other publications, and she was an editor for Mediagazer, a website based in Silicon Valley. She was an author who had published her first book and had signed a two-book deal. In 2016, Lyra was listed in Forbes’ “Thirty Under Thirty” list of prominent young people working in the European news media. Lyra was also an LGBT+ activist; a moving letter she wrote to her 14-year old self about growing up gay in Northern Ireland went viral in 2014. Most importantly, by all accounts she was consistently kind and loving.
Rather than viewing Northern Ireland as a place of sectarianism and violence, it should be seen as a place that produces people like Lyra. People with talent and drive, who work hard to achieve their dreams. People who are passionate about causes beyond green and orange politics. People who care about others and want to make the world better. If Britannia is the personification of Britain and Erin the personification of Ireland, perhaps Lyra is the personification of the Northern Ireland I know.
It is Northern Ireland that almost unanimously condemned Lyra’s death, and one that loudly declared “Not in our name”, painting the mantra on walls and splashing it across social media. The outcry over the young woman’s death has shown that there is no desire to return to the “dark old days”. There was also a telling moment during Lyra’s funeral on Wednesday when Father Martin Magill asked why it had taken the death of a 29-year old woman to get politicians together; this prompted a standing ovation from the packed cathedral. The message was clear: Northern Ireland wants progress, it is now up to our politicians to deliver.