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The murder of journalist Lyra McKee sends an obvious message. The troubled Northern Ireland of yore hasn’t left – it is here to stay.
A few days ago, journalist Lyra McKee was buried in Belfast. When the hearse arrived in front of St Anne’s Cathedral hundreds of people in the street applauded. There were friends and family, most of them in Harry Potter and Marvel outfits, a request made by her partner. And anybody who was anybody in (Northern) Irish and British politics shared the pews: Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar. Varadkar’s presence was, as far as I could see, the only sign that something had changed in Belfast. The Taoiseach, as they call his job in Ireland, is openly gay, as Lyra McKee was. That would not have been possible in the Northern Ireland I worked in as a journalist, all those years ago. And priests leading a service would never have said to the politicians that it was lovely that they were here together, “but why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year old woman with her whole life in front of her?” In other ways, this was very familiar territory. I have been to more funerals, more wakes, more burials in Northern Ireland than I care to remember. And every time there was, at one time or another, the same hope voiced: “Surely, this time, with this death, they will have learnt? Surely, this time, this will be the last time, the last family in mourning, the last life extinguished for nothing?” But here we are again.
Lyra McKee’s murder was claimed by the “new IRA”, who blamed the police, the British, and ultimately the journalist herself for her death. She shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have been this close to “the enemy”. They issued an apology, of sorts, saying that she hadn’t been the target. Something I don’t believe for a minute. There is a big difference, even looking through the scope of a rifle, between a man in uniform and a slight girl with a notebook. A perfect shot through the head, the casings calmly removed afterwards? The head of an investigative journalist, openly gay, a woman, critical of paramilitarism? Really? A few days after Lyra McKee died, the political wing of the “new IRA”, Saoradh, marched, in uniform, during its Easter Commemorations. With their children by their side. The Belfast Telegraph sneered that they obviously believed that “the family which preys together stays together”. And yes, that was preys, not prays. Activists, mainly women, smeared red handprints on the walls of Saoradh’s Derry office. Blood on your hands, you cowards. The “volunteers”, all men, stood by with their arms folded.
The danger that it will all start again looms larger than ever. Especially with the threat of a no deal Brexit, that will result in the same border between the two Irelands that caused more than 3,500 people to die during the 1968-1998 Troubles.
When I left Northern Ireland as a journalist, Lyra McKee was a little kid. It was 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement had just been signed. Instrumental there was another remarkable woman: British Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. What nobody knew, was that Mo had a brain tumor while she was conducting the negotiations with the strongmen around her. It strengthened her fearlessness. Not afraid for her safety, she visited the Maze Prison in Belfast, which held dozens of men, from both sides, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds. During the meetings, she threw her wig on the table, even flashed the dour, straight-laced politicians her undies. Anything to get things moving. She believed that if they all hated her, then at least they had something in common. So when one of the talks didn’t go to plan, she stopped it, and said: “let’s start again, only this time no cocks on the table”. Both Irelands are in essence a matriarchy, so women all around smiled and willed her on. Like they did with Lyra McKee: “you go girl, tell it to them straight”.
But both Mowlam and McKee knew that the problem were the men and boys. Mowlam had hope for the new generation, but McKee had seen, and felt, and experienced, that nothing had really changed. Derry, in particular, is still the same as when I used it as a base for my work. I was back there last year, after an absence of almost a decade. It had the same smell of peat, the houses were still too small for their occupants, everything was still grey. The walls between the neighbourhoods were even higher and the groups of boys hanging around with nothing to do seemed bigger, and more menacing. McKee wrote that the younger generation, her generation, had not profited from peace, and that felt true. 2/3 of children in Derry are still born in poverty, education is still separate, tribalism stronger than ever before. And because the killing, the daily dying, the knee-capping, of the Troubles, has disappeared out of people’s memories, the danger that it will all start again looms larger than ever before. Especially with the threat of a no deal Brexit, that will result in the same border between the two Irelands that caused more than 3,500 people to die during the 1968-1998 Troubles. That was what I was thinking while I was watching McKee’s funeral: don’t sit there, Theresa May, and pretend to care. Do something about it!
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The last story I wrote about the Troubles was in the early 2000s. Lyra McKee must have been in primary school, just starting to get bullied for being different. I spent a few weeks talking to young men, probably ten years older than she was then. They were in their late teens, early twenties, and they had just missed the boat. Or at least, that is how they saw it. Their fathers, uncles, older brothers had been “volunteers”, either on the Catholic or the Protestant side. Some of them had died, but at least their name lived on in a mural or a park. What had they to look forward to, how were they supposed to prove their masculinity, their worth? They could see that life wasn’t great for their elders, either. The men who had come home after long prison sentences had been replaced. Their place at the head of the table now belonged to the mother, the grandmother, the aunt: the women who had kept the family together while they were away. The men could field-strip a semiautomatic weapon in thirteen seconds, but they couldn’t keep down a normal job.
The boys who did the killing last week were their sons and grandsons. Raised by angry, unproductive, unimaginative, ill-educated men, looking for, and failing to find, a place in the world. As the Belfast Telegraph wrote commenting on Lyra McKee’s death: “Never Again tends to have an expiry date, which sees Again cancel out Never”. Maybe Northern Ireland should take a leaf out of Rwanda’s book. After the genocide there, the population decided that it was time for men to step back for a while and let women try and do better. After the 2013 elections, 64% of their Members of Parliament were women. Of course, not all is well there either, and the head of state is still a man. But we have to start somewhere. We have to try to sidestep this endless cycle of toxic masculinity. Because it kills. It kills the best of us.
For this story I have used the following sources:
The Atlantic—The Center Isn’t Holding in Northern Ireland
Belfast Telegraph—Eilis O’Hanlon: Why it is just one short, perilous step from ‘understanding’ dissident violence to defending or excusing it
Belfast Telegraph—Ex-Provo’s excoriating message for Lyra McKee’s New IRA killers
Belfast Telegraph—Scots must have choice between Brexit and independence before May 2021: Sturgeon
The Guardian—Lyra McKee funeral: politicians urged to seize the moment
The Guardian—Lyra McKee killing: why Derry never saw a peace dividend
The Guardian—Lyra McKee: woman, 57, arrested over journalist’s killing
The Guardian—Revealed: the real Mo Mowlam