The Significance of Journalist Lyra McKee’s Killing in Northern Irish Riots

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A 29-year-old woman described as one of Northern Ireland’s ‘most promising’ journalists was killed in the city of Derry/Londonderry during what police describe as a ‘terrorist incident’ on 18th April 2019. The aftermath of Lyra McKee’s death has seen the resumption of Northern Irish cross-party government reformation negotiations.

On that fateful April day, riots broke out in the Creggan area of Derry/Londonderry during police search operations. Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old journalist from north Belfast, went to the scene to report on what was going on. Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable, Mark Hamilton, reports that over 50 petrol bombs were thrown at the police; 2 cars were set on fire and at 11PM, a gunman fired several shots towards the police. McKee was caught in the crossfire and was fatally wounded. 4 days after her death, dissident republican group the “New IRA” claimed responsibility for her death, stating ‘In the course of attacking the enemy, Lyra McKee was tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces’. The New IRA is a paramilitary group formed around 2012 that uses violent means in its quest for a united Ireland. The original IRA disbanded after the 1998 peace treaty and the New IRA is made up of nationalists who oppose that treaty. The paramilitary group also offered ‘full and sincere apologies to the partner, family and friends of Lyra McKee for her death’ and accused police forces of ‘provoking the rioting’ in the Creggan estate.

This attack came at a particularly turbulent time in Northern Irish politics. Tensions in the country have been riding high ever since Brexit’s announcement 2 years ago, as talks of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have provoked fears of a return to violence. After several bomb attacks in the area of Derry/Londonderry in January 2019, fears that Northern Irish dissidents will use Brexit as a means to justify further violence have been heightened. The collapse of the Northern Irish Assembly in January 2017 has only served to further divide the community in an already tumultuous time. This collapse has been attributed to a myriad of issues, but ultimately boils down to one thing – mostly Protestant unionism vs mostly Catholic nationalism (under the guise of DUP vs Sinn Fein). Despite the end of the Troubles in 1998, division still runs deep in Northern Ireland, where around 90% of secondary schools are segregated and paramilitaries still hold an active presence. This division was highlighted at Ms McKee’s funeral when Father Martin Magill chastised political leaders during his funeral address, provoking a standing ovation from the congregation.

Lyra McKee worked as a journalist and author and had been named by Forbes as one of their top 30 under 30 people in media to follow. She wrote extensively about the Troubles and their continuing impact on Northern Irish society, specifically with regards to mental health. Several of her articles and her unfinished book (for which she had just signed a deal with the publishers Faber) focused on the “Lost Boys” of Northern Ireland, the young males ‘left behind’ after the paramilitary ceasefires. Ms McKee had recently met with Netflix executives to discuss possibly creating a true crime show about the Lost Boys. One of Lyra’s landmark pieces ‘Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies’ highlights the worrying statistics concerning the suicide rate among Northern Irish citizens born after the ceasefire. Her research reveals that more people have taken their own lives since the Troubles ended than died during the conflict itself. As McKee states: ‘We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the after effects of those horrors seemed to follow us.’

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Lyra McKee was also a prominent figure in the LGBT+ community, both in Northern Ireland and beyond. In a country where gay marriage remains illegal, Lyra McKee was a beacon to those struggling with their sexuality. John O’Doherty, director of the Northern Irish branch of the Rainbow Project, described her as a ‘hero to many in the LGBT community’. Her raw article Letter to My 14 Year Old Self describes her own coming-out process and encapsulates the anxiety and shame experienced by gay teenagers growing up in Northern Ireland. It was even later adapted for a short film. Lyra had just settled down in Derry/Londonderry with her partner Sara Canning and had apparently bought her an engagement ring shortly before her death. However, First Minister Arlene Foster has stated that Northern Irish legislation banning same-sex marriage will not be changed in the wake of Lyra’s death, commenting ‘You shouldn’t conflate the two issues of empathy and sympathy and a political issue which is the definition of marriage’.

Lyra’s death has provoked heartfelt and angry responses from various communities across the nation. Many have taken to social media to express their grief, and the seismic response evidences how loved and valued Lyra was by all she came into contact with. Several public demonstrations have taken place, including candlelight vigils in Derry/Londonderry and Belfast, and protests at the headquarters of Saoradh (a political group with links to the New IRA), during which protestors painted their hands red and covered the building with blood-red handprints. Many prominent members of nationalist communities have denounced the actions of the New IRA.

Meanwhile, cross-party talks overseen by the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley began on 7th May to try to restore devolved government. It’s expected that overall progress will be reviewed by the end of the month. Implementing the recommendations of a 2017 report to establish Troubles historical abuse aid has been a major early focus of the talks.

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Considering all the progress made since 1998, it’s shocking that something like this could happen today. Lyra’s death was one of the ‘after effects of (these) horror(s)’ that she wrote about so extensively. In losing Lyra, the journalism community, the LGBT community and the Northern Irish community has lost a talented friend and colleague. In the aftermath of her death, the shout has been raised over and over – “never again.”

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Second year language and linguistics student from Northern Ireland. Usually found reading or making music.

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