Lyra McKee's death shows the distance Northern Ireland still has to run
was, in her own words, one of Northern Ireland’s “ceasefire babies”.
When the IRA, and later the loyalist paramilitaries, declared their ceasefires in 1994, ushering in an era of relative peace and stability, she was barely in primary school. She was meant to grow up in a world free from bombings, shootings, sectarian carnage and 24/7 terror. She was part of the post-Troubles generation.
Her however, underscores how Northern Ireland is still far away from being a normal society 21 years to the day after the Belfast agreement was reached on Good Friday 1998. McKee, of course, spotted the glaring contradictions between political peace between mainstream unionism and republicanism and the social schisms that still fractured Northern Irish life.
One of her first major works in journalism was a groundbreaking study of the rise of suicides after the ceasefires and the Good Friday agreement. Her meticulous research found that more people had died in the two decades since the 1998 peace agreement through suicide than had been killed in violent incidents during the Troubles.
And although her own personal struggles were very 21st century – as a gay woman she fought against prejudice and bigotry directed at the local LGBT community – she could engage with people from all walks of life, including conservative evangelical Christians.
One of her major investigations was into the British-Israelite and traditional Christian Ulster Unionist MP Robert Bradford whom the IRA shot dead in 1981 at his constituency surgery in south Belfast. McKee doggedly pursued a line that at least one of the IRA figures associated with the murder plot may have been a Special Branch informer at the time of the Bradford assassination.
While she was serious and professional in her journalism McKee never took herself too seriously and was a vivacious, bubbly figure with a natural tendency to help others.
I am proud to say in a small way I helped her in the early days of her journalistic career and hope it did some good. She was always grateful and gracious in her attitude.
Despite being a child of the peace process McKee was under no illusions about the trauma that the Troubles had left stamped on the DNA of . The fact that she lost her life doing her job on the streets of Derry, the city where the Troubles started 50 years ago, underlines that default that continues to hold the city back.
On hearing about her death during a dissident republican gun attack on police lines late on Thursday night, I was propelled back to a scene more than 15 years ago when a gun battle broke out between the British army and the pro-British loyalists of the Ulster Defence Association on the streets of Belfast. A chill went down my spine thinking of the whizz of bullets and the thwack of their impact on walls around me as the UDA fired upon troops deployed during a security operation to prevent Orangemen from marching on to the Springfield Road one summer.
I remember thinking later on that Saturday evening how lucky I had been to escape alongside a photographer friend of mine without any serious injuries. The thought also struck me that here we were on the streets of a city in the UK where the British army was under fire from gunmen who pledged their loyalty to the British state. I never thought I would ever live through an experience like that again, at least not in Northern Ireland; I thought this was the dying kick of a conflict that was coming inexorably to an end. Perhaps that is why the mainstream media in Britain virtually ignored the events of that Saturday, believing that this kind of violence was a thing of the past.
Yet here we are, 25 years on from the ceasefires and more than two decades from the Good Friday agreement, and in another city of the UK, albeit at the edge of the union, a colleague is killed by paramilitaries, this time Irish republican dissidents, who are intent on killing police officers.
The tragic loss of McKee reminds us that journalism remains a dangerous business at times, and that you do not have to operate in regions of the world such as Syria, Iraq or parts of Africa to run the risk of losing your life in pursuit of the truth.
No one has ever been charged with the 2001 murder of the last journalist to be killed in Northern Ireland, the Sunday World’s reporter Martin O’Hagan, who was deliberately targeted and killed by the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
There are many other journalists I know who live and work here who have been under death threats for years and for the rest of their lives will look over their shoulders.
As for Lyra McKee, all we can do is continue what she did and pursue the truth through our reportage and our stories. She was one of the new rising stars of 21st-century Irish journalism and was both fair and fearless in that endeavour. People from all political persuasions, faiths, creeds, sexual orientation and background have been paying tribute to her memory today. That says it all.