- 25 Apr 19
Amid emotional scenes at her funeral in Belfast yesterday, there were calls to end the political stalemate in the North. Just as important is the need to end discrimination against gays, which is still rampant in Northern Ireland. After all, gay marriage is accepted as a right in both the UK and in Ireland...
Lyra McKee, a journalist of just 29 years of age, was murdered in the shadow of the Easter weekend in Derry, when riots in the Creggan were used as a smokescreen for an attempt to shoot dead members of the PSNI. Images of the tragic events as they unfolded can be seen on social media.
A hooded figure leans out to have a look. He or she drops back out of view. Re-emerges and opens fire. It is quite clear that this sinister figure is shooting to kill, though there is no knowing who is being aimed at. There are members of the PSNI out there. Any one of them will do. Instead, the bullet finds a young journalist and author, who is there to observe the ructions first-hand. There is nothing that can be done to save Lyra McKee’s life.
Someone is filming the scene from the other side. The figure is seen shooting. A second individual is there to assist. They pick the used cartridges off the ground and skulk away into the night.
As Tommie Gorman memorably put it on the RTÉ evening news: “If they had killed one PSNI officer they’d have been happy. If they had killed ten, they’d have been ten times happier.” Instead they murdered a journalist.
All of the clichés are right. To see the crime being committed is deeply shocking. What these cursed fools did was stupid. Pointless. Futile. Vicious. Cowardly. Appalling. Horrific. Revolting. Irresponsible. But it was all of that and worse too: it was deliberate. It was pre-meditated. It was murderous.
The resistance to the idea of naming the guilty parties is deeply ingrained in Derry and understandably so. But shibboleths like that hold no water now. It is impossible to argue against the friends of Lyra’ McKee, who insist that there should be no hiding place for those responsible; or for the Nationalist elders who aided and abetted them.
Someone held the gun and pulled the trigger. Someone else had given the gun to them. Jointly and severally, they are responsible for the murder of Lyra McKee. And to be clear: no bullshit about ‘crown forces’ will make them any less so.
VIOLENCE MIGHT ERUPT
I am sorry that I didn’t know Lyra McKee. She was what I think of as a Hot Press kind of person.
Originally from Belfast, Lyra was, or had been when she was young at any rate, an outsider. She made no secret of it. Growing up gay in Ireland was tough for someone born in the early 1990s. Growing up gay in Northern Ireland was even tougher.
The Booker-prize winning Milkman, Anna Burns’ fiercely brilliant fictional account of how outsiders were treated in Belfast in the 1970s, gives a powerful insight into the horribly claustrophobic, and as it was back then far too often brutal, nature of the city by the Lagan. Its insularity. Its intolerance of difference. The sick, sectarian, religious underpinnings. The pressure to have kids. The speed at which slander spread. The tribal hostilities. And the viciousness, thuggery and intimidation even within the enclosed worlds of each of the mutually hostile communities. It was a milieu in which a young woman could be ostracised merely for the fact that she enjoyed reading while she was walking. Being gay would involve a whole other dimension entirely.
Things had improved marginally by the 1990s. That was the decade during which the Provisional IRA started to get wise to the toxic nature of the so called ‘armed struggle’. It was a time of talking. Of negotiation. Of special envoys flying in. Of brave individuals on both sides stretching across the great sectarian divide in an attempt to fashion some kind of shared understanding.
It only worked up to a point. In many ways, the solutions formalised in the Good Friday agreement institutionalised sectarian and cultural – I should really say ‘cultural’ – differences. The agreement solemnised the idea of two communities, risking that they might forever be seen as existing only in some kind of precarious balance. But, for all its faults, the agreement was a vital step away from the abyss. The horrors of the past might, by agreement, be consigned to history at least in that they would not – as they had for so long – be endlessly repeated. Violence, murder, brutality could be put aside. And it happened: people of Lyra McKee’s generation did not have to live with the imminent threat of daily outrages, in the way that their parents, or older brothers and sisters, had.
In that general sense, things were better post-Agreement. But as Lyra McKee herself wrote eloquently, discussing the rise in the number of suicides in Northern Ireland among the new generation of Ceasefire Babies, the psychic wounds were still real. Trauma is passed down. And what’s more, the excitement of the Troubles, twisted as it may have been, had also disappeared. Since the early 1970s, the ongoing threat itself had united communities partly at least in fear. There was a weird kind of social solidarity in the knowledge that violence might erupt at any moment. It was us against the other lot. You had to be alert. You had to look out for your mates, and they for you. That is the way Anna Burns describes it and it rings chillingly true.
MADLY IN LOVE
Not everyone bought into the mission. Far from it. But, if they didn’t choose silence, cunning and exile – as many young people of Protestant background in particular did – then they had to accept the daily realpolitik that trying to fend for yourself might be making the wrong choice. You never knew when someone would decide that you were a collaborator or a stooge. To an extent, you had to become inured to the sheer grinding awfulness. But there was a sense of purpose even to knowing how to stay away from the self-appointed enemy of whichever hue.
After the ceasefire, and finally when the Belfast Agreement was signed, and peace slipped in, that oppositional sense of purpose was gone. There was more time, perhaps, for people to be alone with their frailties. And in a society as apparently grotesquely conservative, and steeped in the notions of guilt and shame that are at the heart of what Christianity has taught people in Ireland, especially in relation to sex, then gays were that much more likely than most to experience a sense of isolation, insecurity and anxiety. Of marginalisation. Of despair.
“Kid, It’s going to be OK,” Lyra wrote in her powerful letter to her 14 year old self, published in 2014 – when she was 24 – on her site, The Muckraker. “I know you’re not feeling that way right now,” she went on. “You’re sitting in school. The other kids are making fun of you. You told the wrong person you had a crush and soon, they all knew your secret. It’s horrible. They make your life hell. They laugh at you, whisper about you and call you names. It’s not nice. And you can’t ask an adult for help because if you did that, you’d have to tell them the truth and you can’t do that. They can’t ever know your secret.”
Lyra McKee lived through all of that teenage angst and stigmatisation and gradually found her own authentic voice. She watched in horror as friends decided that they’d had enough. Rather than shrinking back into the straightjacket that Catholicism and Protestantism, Northern Irish style, have designed for gays, she grew in strength and confidence. The success of the campaign for same sex marriage in Ireland was a source of enormous encouragement for gays north of the border. Their day, they knew, must come. Now Lyra will not see it.
Not long ago, Lyra McKee moved to Derry, to live with her girlfriend Sara Canning. There have been stories suggesting that she had planned to propose to Sara. It doesn’t matter. She had fallen madly in love and it was reciprocated. She was full of hope and joy.
She loved Derry too, and seemed enthralled with the city and the future happiness it held in prospect. It is impossibly moving to think of that infatuation now.
Lyra McKee knew that the neanderthals in the DUP still have the upper-hand: what Northern Irish gay does not? They can stymie progress. Make everyone a victim of their bigotry. But recent polls have shown that the tide has turned. Being gay is no longer viewed as something shameful by the majority in Northern Ireland. The six counties have been changing. They are continuing to change. In terms of evolution and growth, politicians, the polls confirmed, are way behind the people. The next election might be a telling one. For Lyra, and Sara, the promise of the future really was bright.
Now all of that has been brutally undone by the recklessness of the self-styled ’new’ IRA, and the political grouping that calls itself Saoradh. Lyra McKee is dead. Hope lies in ruins. The city is in shock. But her friends will not be cowed. They have been taking direct action: on Monday, they smeared red hand-prints on the banners outside the Saoradh offices. “That’s the blood on their hands,” Sinead Quinn, a friend of Lyra’s said. “People have been afraid to stand up to people like this. We are not afraid.”
She said that dissident republicans have to take responsibility for what happened. “They have moulded these young people into what they are. They’re standing behind them, handing them guns. They’ve said it was an accidental shooting. You don’t shoot somebody accidentally. When you put a gun into a child’s hand and they shoot it, that’s murder. They murdered Lyra McKee.”
If a smidgeon of hope remains, it is that these words will echo long into the future.
“Lyra McKee’s name will never be forgotten in this town,” Sinead Quinn added. “Never. She was the kind of person would have done it for us, so we have to do it for her.”
There is never any consolation in a moment like this.
Black fate, fuelled by a murderous ideology, has played the ultimate card. But there are ways in which people in Northern Ireland can try to do at least some justice to the memory of this young writer. If her needless, bloody death can become a symbol of the final end of the idea of physical force republicanism, then that at least will be something onto which her family and friends can hold as they remember the woman they loved.
There is a second thing that can and should be done in her name. In the wake of her murder, Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP went to the Creggan, where Lyra McKee had been shot dead, and was applauded for what she said in condemnation of those responsible. If she was truly genuine and sincere in mourning the tragic loss of Lyra McKee, then Arlene Foster should – Arlene Foster must – take the next logical step.
She should publicly abandon the anti-gay bigotry and prejudice, which the DUP, as a party, has stood, and still stands, for. She should accept that gays and lesbians are fully and unequivocally entitled to equal treatment under the law in Northern Ireland.
She can forswear on the hypocrisy that she – and her fellow members of the DUP – have shown throughout the Brexit process by claiming that they want the same laws to apply in Northern Ireland, as do in the rest of the UK, while refusing to support gay marriage and abortion – both of which are available everywhere else in the UK, as well as in Ireland.
Let the law introducing Marriage Equality to Northern Ireland be known as the Lyra McKee statute. Arlene Foster has it within her grasp to do something meaningful and permanent in memory of this good, honourable, highly intelligent, impressively grounded young woman whose life has been stolen from her.
Lyra McKee wanted to make a difference. Let politicians now make a real difference in her name.