Article By Kathryn Johnston - Photography by Kevin Cooper
Speak Truth to Power
Yesterday was three years to the day that my friend, colleague and fellow National Union of Journalists (NUJ) member Lyra McKee was murdered by a gunman in the Creggan area of Derry.
Yesterday I was one of those attending an NUJ vigil in Belfast at St Anne’s Cathedral, where her funeral took place almost three years ago to the very hour. We unveiled a new banner dedicated to her.
One of Lyra’s favourite definitions of good journalism is to ‘Speak Truth to Power’. These words appear at the foot of the banner.
Lyra’s partner Sara, her sister Nichola, and other members of her family and friends also held a vigil in Derry, as did the Derry and North West branch of the NUJ.
On the eve of Good Friday, late on the night of 18 April 2019, Lyra, a 29-year-old journalist, had been observing a violent incident in Derry. Armed paramilitaries were throwing petrol bombs at Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers.
As she watched, a masked man dropped to his knees and fired along the street in the direction of the police officers.
The bullet could have hit anyone that night.
Perhaps one of the police.
Or it could have been the mother carrying a child in her arms as she stood at her front door.
But the bullet fired by the gunman hit Lyra in the head, felling her instantly.
She died shortly after being rushed to hospital.
Lyra had been part of a group of journalists watching the incident. Earlier that night, with the love of her life, Sara, by her side, she had posted a photograph of the rioters confronting a police land-rover on Twitter, with the comment, ‘Derry tonight. Absolute madness.’
All of us who knew Lyra also knew that one day, she would make international headlines.
But never in our worst nightmares could we ever have imagined that those headlines would describe how our bright, beautiful and compassionate friend had been cut down in the line of duty to become the latest victim of the Troubles.
After her death, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, paid tribute to her life and work on national television, saying, ‘an attack on a journalist at any time in any part of the world is an attack on truth itself.’
The President’s words chimed with something Lyra herself had written in the book that she was working on at the time of her death, The Lost Boys. Published posthumously, thousands later noted the irony of her words. ‘Northern Ireland’, she wrote, ‘had a way of burying uncomfortable truths, just like it buried its dead.’
The timing of Lyra’s murder, on the very anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, added another layer of dark and poignant meaning to her funeral service.
The Northern Ireland Assembly had failed to meet for well over a year at that time; politics in the province was once again in crisis. The priest taking the cross-community funeral service in St Anne’s Cathedral, Father Martin Magill, didn’t miss and hit the wall when he praised the politicians for setting aside their political differences to stand together in Derry on Good Friday to pay tribute to Lyra.
‘But’, he asked firmly, ‘why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman to get us to this point?’
Now that’s what you call speaking truth to power.
Mourners had risen to their feet to applaud spontaneously almost before he had finished the full sentence.
In one of the final pieces Lyra wrote, she criticised the politicians for not following through on their commitments to the Good Friday Agreement.
She would have been livid that, as we move towards the 25th anniversary of its signing in 2023, and only a couple of weeks before a Northern Ireland Assembly election on 5th May, there seems to be as little prospect of the GFA reaching its full potential of creating a better life for all the people of Ireland as ever.
The last words belong to Lyra.
This extract is from a piece she wrote called A History of the Troubles According to a Ceasefire Baby (McKee, Lyra. Lost, Found, Remembered. Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition)
They appear here in her memory and with the kind permission of her sister and literary executor, Nichola McKee Corner.
‘The story of how my generation got fucked over was a different one. We didn’t sign up to a war and get sold out by a surrender. Politicians, hoping to sell the peace deal to our parents, made three promises.
The first promise, they barely delivered on: peace.
Loyalist paramilitaries stopped terrorising Catholic neighbourhoods; instead, they terrorised their own.
Various Republican splinter groups faded away, but in their place new groups grew, with names such as “the New IRA”.
Like the Loyalists, they instilled fear in poor areas such as Ardoyne, which were only beginning to get over the past three decades. In the background, Unionist and Republican or Nationalist politicians continued to bicker, reopening old wounds, and appealing to the sectarian fears of their voters at every election.
It wasn’t the peace promised, just an absence of all-out civil war. Shootings still happened, but it was no longer each side against the other; the paramilitaries were now aiming their guns inwards, towards their own communities.
The second promise was prosperity.
Peace, we were assured, would bring a thriving new economy.
It never appeared. It didn’t matter what qualifications you had, the most plentiful work was to be found in call centres, answering, or making calls for a minimum wage. They were egalitarian shitholes; middle-class kids with PhDs mixed with kids with no GCSEs, and they all earned the same for doing the same grunt work. If you were lucky, the job didn’t come with timed toilet breaks. In the end, most graduates ended up leaving…
The third promise the politicians made and broke was the one that hurt the most. It was felt mostly in the areas that had already been ravaged, the ones where the gunmen continued to roam. Your children, they’d told our parents, will be safe now. With the peace deal, the days of young people disappearing and dying young would be gone. Yet this turned out to be a lie, too.’
Three years after her murder, Lyra’s family are still waiting for justice. Yesterday in Derry her sister Nichola made a fresh appeal for information about her death.
‘Three years ago our sister Lyra McKee was murdered here in this city, and still three years on, we are waiting for justice for Lyra. The person who pulled the trigger of the gun that led to her death still walks these streets, and while they walk these streets, these streets will not be safe for the people of this city,’ she said.
To support the campaign set up by her family and friends, visit the website here: https://www.justice4lyra.com