Martina Devlin: ‘Nobody can claim that Lyra’s murder was a bolt from the blue’

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Martina Devlin: ‘Nobody can claim that Lyra’s murder was a bolt from the blue’


United in sorrow: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald with DUP leader Arlene Foster at a vigil in Derry following the death of journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
United in sorrow: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald with DUP leader Arlene Foster at a vigil in Derry following the death of journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

OnGood Friday, we awoke to the kind of news that was commonplace during the Troubles. We went to bed to reports of rioting in Derry, and breakfast bulletins the next morning carried details about sudden, violent death.

A young journalist was the victim, sacrificed to a credo hostile to the Good Friday Agreement – regarded by dissidents as selling out republican ideals. The pattern was depressingly familiar, though we hoped it was consigned to a bin marked ‘horrible 20th-century history’.

A PSNI sweep for weapons led to disturbances, probably orchestrated: petrol bombs thrown, vehicles hijacked and burned out, attacks on police transport – and gunfire.

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When guns enter the frame, innocent people tend to die. Lyra McKee was 29 with a bright future ahead of her. Instead, all that promise bled away, her death emphasising the fragility of peace.

During rioting in the Creggan area, two masked gunmen ignored the presence of locals, young and old, and fired in flagrant fashion towards the police line. Within seconds, a Belfast woman lay dying. Gunfire was still heard as friends tried to pull her to shelter.

We don’t know what exactly the gunmen hoped to achieve. It seems unlikely that a bystander’s death was the aim. But regardless, their actions were anti-peace, anti-democracy and anti-progress. Derry’s sense of anger, frustration and anxiety at this development is shared throughout the country. Just as all of Ireland has benefited from the peace process, so all of Ireland is threatened when it is undermined.

Remember Bill Clinton’s eulogy at Martin McGuinness’s funeral? The former US president said the IRA leader turned peacemaker had expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrunk the definition of ‘them’. Those reckless men in his home city seeking to undermine Mr McGuinness’s work, and the efforts of many other contributors to the peace process, see only ‘them’ – get in their way and expect to be treated as roadkill.

Mr McGuinness had a firm grip on Derry; his death has left a vacuum which dissidents are trying to fill. But they are not representative of the community. They do not have the support of the people. They are dinosaurs and extinction is their inevitable fate. All the same, they can cause turmoil before that happens.

The Good Friday Agreement has saved a great number of lives in the past two decades. But not Ms McKee’s. Hers was a stolen life. Just eight years old when the pact was signed, she should have flourished in the post-Troubles landscape. Indeed, she was blossoming, with a productive career and an encouraging future ahead. Bullets put paid to that.

The violence was co-ordinated by the New IRA, formed in 2012 when a number of dissident republican organisations combined forces. It is believed to be the largest dissident grouping and includes Real IRA members. Police appear to have received intelligence regarding activities planned over Easter weekend.

Perhaps Easter was the reason why something was afoot – it is a resonant time of year in republican iconography, although it is possible to commemorate the sacrifices of a previous generation without wishing to add to the death count. Maybe the presence of Nancy Pelosi and the US delegation from Congress was a factor, offering the prospect of US publicity. And possibly Brexit played a part. But no one can claim Ms McKee’s death as a bolt from the blue.

For some time, threat levels have been elevated in the North. Police chiefs have issued blunt warnings – but ears have been blocked because nobody wants to believe the return of violence.

The evidence has been plain to see, however. That car bomb in Derry three months ago was New IRA handiwork.

The recent acts of terror were proof of febrile conditions stirring in the North, and they continue to ferment. The times are volatile thanks to Brexit. On Thursday night, the PSNI took pre-emptive action and embarked on a large-scale operation, searching houses for weapons, with army technical officers on the scene. Replace PSNI with RUC and that’s a sentence which could be from 30 or 40 years ago.

But the difference today is the people are not on the side of paramilitaries. Violence has been rejected. Political leaders from across the spectrum are united in condemning the shooting.

Significantly, Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill referred to Ms McKee’s death as murder and called it “an attack on our peace process” as she unreservedly denounced it. Echoing her, party leader Mary Lou McDonald asked people with information to go to the police.

This can offer no comfort to the partner, relatives and friends of the dead woman, but it does signal a shift compared to the Troubles years when no one would have been advised by Sinn Féin to co-operate with the police. Real progress has been made.

On the same day as the shooting, Speaker Pelosi and her Democrat colleague Richard Neal spoke at the Donegal-Derry Border about the dark days of the Troubles – Congressman Neal citing his experience of an army checkpoint. Even then, a few hours before Ms McKee breathed her last, it seemed as if he was describing a scene from a distant era. But the weapon used to shoot the young woman had been sourced already and was primed for use.

Perversely, those engaging in violence in Derry have something in common with Jacob Rees-Mogg and other hardline Brexiteers who met Speaker Pelosi in London this week. Both dissidents and Brexiteer ultras are alike in caring nothing for the Good Friday Agreement. They place no value on the peace it has delivered.

However, Speaker Pelosi spoke up for the accord, at the London School of Economics, where she described it as “an ideal, it’s a value, it’s something that’s a model to the world, something that we all take pride in” and warned it could not be “bargained away in another agreement”. As in Leinster House later, she said any weakening of the Good Friday Agreement would derail the hoped-for US-UK trade agreement.

Trade is one thing, but life and death is another matter altogether. Our peace isn’t only about prosperity but the right to live in a safe environment.

In the most macabre of ways, Lyra McKee’s killing marks the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – her death should serve as a catalyst to fill the North’s political void. Because that cavity allows dissidents to thrive.

Irish Independent

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