The Last Story of Reverend Robert Bradford

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In a journalism climate adverse to costly, time-intensive investigations, Belfast writer Lyra McKee is hoping to defy the odds by using the power of the internet to crowdfund her book about the last weeks of murdered South Belfast MP, Rev Robert Bradford.

Me at Dublin Web Summit 2013

“He had this final story that he didn’t get to finish. So I want to finish his final story. Find out what it was and see it through to the end.”

D
emocracy depends on good investigative reporting. When society loses its muckrakers, the powerful and the crooked get away with their wicked deeds. But the digital age has not been kind to the traditional institutions of journalism. Newsroom budgets continue to decline and resources for investigative journalism—a lengthy, litigious, and research-intensive craft—are scarce. So it’s not surprising that philanthropic organisations, concerned about the implications for democracy, have stepped to the fore to pick up the slack.

But there is a big question about sustainability. The not-for-profit model cannot carry the burden of funding investigative journalism on its own. On the one hand, the rise of the internet has deflated the once mighty newspaper industry. But on the other, through social media, digital media, and crowdfunding platforms, it has opened up new opportunities for innovative and resourceful journalists tenacious enough to make the economic realities of the industry work.

Lyra McKee, who turns 24 at the end of this month, has dreamed of being an investigative journalist since she was fifteen. To source funding for her first book project, she’s trying something new. She’s using the internet to ask her readers to pay her a monthly subscription directly. The book investigates the last days of Northern Ireland MP, Robert Bradford, who was murdered 32 years ago inside a Belfast community centre. Subscribers, who can support her by registering at Beacon Reader, will get a first hand look at each chapter as it is completed.

I am sitting with Lyra in a Clement’s Café across from Belfast City Hall on a typically overcast and cold day in March. As she fiddles with the cream and marshmallows on top of her hot chocolate, Lyra gives me her life story, tells me about the plan to fund her book, and  explains why someone from a working class Catholic background in North Belfast would commit herself to telling the story of a murdered Protestant unionist.

Lyra went to school in Ardoyne, one of the most heated interface areas in Northern Ireland. At the age of eleven, when most students in Northern Ireland sit the transfer test, she was, as she says, “basically written off.”

“I was one of the kids that couldn’t even sit the transfer test because I was so bad at it. The only thing I ever felt I was good at was reading, and that made me feel stupid.”

“The transfer system taught you that if you weren’t good at math and science, and you weren’t passing the exams, you were stupid. And you didn’t fit in the education system. I really hate the transfer system so much and the fact that our politicians back it because it can destroy lives and self confidence.”

“I had a couple teachers who told me I was good at something, who were fantastic. But most just gave up on me. And you know, mum would tell me I was smart, because mums do that. But you don’t believe them. And you’ve got the teachers contradicting her. Then a teacher said, ‘I have faith in you,’ and that was it.”

“What that teacher did was pull me back from the brink. It was intervention. She told me I was smart and had a talent, and, like wow, no one ever told me that before!”

While at school Lyra was encouraged to join a journalism training scheme for disadvantaged teenagers. With the mentorship and direction she gained while on the scheme she wrote her first story.

“It was the first time in my life that I truly connected with something. I knew this was the one thing I was meant to do for the rest of my life. And it felt like I was actually really good at it. It was like slipping into a skintight suit. It just fit perfectly. I have never experienced anything like it since, it was like electricity running through your body. It was an epiphany moment, Barton. I knew what I was meant to do for the rest of my life!”

The Third Way event - me

Lyra has just been to the dentist and her cheeks are still droopy. She is talking at a rapid pace, and while she does, bloody saliva begins to cover her teeth and stain her lips. I gently interrupt her and point this out. She fishes out from her bag a specially suited hygienic cloth from the dentist. “I almost forgot I was in pain!”

For the last five years, Lyra has been freelancing. At one point she had been enrolled in an undergraduate programme at Queen’s University, but she dropped out. “As someone from a working-class background, it was a culture shock. It was almost like that little voice at the back of your head that says, ‘You’re not good enough.’”

“As well, I couldn’t figure out how it was going to get me to my dream. Because at that point, the journalism industry was falling apart. There was going to be no jobs anyway, so it didn’t matter if I had a degree or not. So I said, ‘I need to invent my own job.’”

Lyra has since made the 2013-2014 shortlist of the prestigious Stanford University John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship and is currently waiting to hear back from the University of Ulster about a PhD application to study the future of investigative journalism.

But it’s her investigation into the murder of Robert Bradford that has kept her up at night, trawling through online archives deep into the wee hours of the morning.

“The book is about the last weeks of Reverend Robert Bradford who was the only Northern  Irish MP to be murdered during the Troubles. He was a Methodist minister, he worked in West Belfast, was originally from Sandy Row, and was an interesting guy. But really the reason it matters is because there are so many questions about what really happened to Robert Bradford.”

“There’s this rumour. Before he died, Reverend Bradford was asking questions about something sensitive. But no one knows what it was. And I’m totally intrigued by this.”

“This guy was basically an investigative reporter by night. He was a politician, but at the same time tried to hold power to account. He was an opposition politician. And constantly digging stuff up.”

“He had this final story that he didn’t get to finish. So I want to finish his final story. Find out what it was and see it through to the end.”

Lyra has been working on the book with no funding for nearly twenty months on her own free time. The launch of the crowdfunding campaign tomorrow marks the next step in the project and Lyra hopes that with the money she generates she’ll be able to afford trips to archives in London and sources in the Unites States.

Coming from a Catholic-Nationalist background in North Belfast, it’s perhaps surprising that Lyra would choose to devote her first book-length project as a journalist to the life of a unionist politician. I asked her to tell me why she was so intrigued by Bradford and why it was important that his story gets told now.

“He was originally from the Sandy Row. He was a working-class boy in Big House Unionism. He said a couple things which led people to accuse him of being a bigot. I think he screwed up sometimes. He had issues with the Catholic church, for example. So he protested at a Catholic service being held at Westminster.”

“But he was very good friends with Gerry Fitt, who was the Catholic MP for West Belfast. He had a cross-community church group. So he was all these things, and yet he gets painted as this bigot.”

Bradford made a series of mistakes, Lyra believes, because he could not handle the pressures of his public role. “You never saw the really good things he did for Catholics in the background. Here’s the problem, we’ve only ever seen Robert Bradford in the context of a war. We’ve never actually seen the person that he would have become, the politician and peace maker he probably would have become if he’d lived. We’ve only seen him stressed and not really coping.”

“We only see politicians when they’re making the headlines, and it’s usually for the wrong reasons. For me as an investigative journalist, it’s fascinating. We have this picture of him that is really one dimensional. But he’s a lot more complex. It’s changed my mind on the Troubles.”

Like all good writers, Lyra is trying to complicate our understanding of history. She wants to document an important Troubles-era story that will cause us to rethink the narrative of the conflict in Northern Ireland. “We tend to see the Troubles as one side against the other. And every side is trying to claim the monopoly on history so they can claim to be the good side. Really what you have are people who are victims of their circumstances. They were being humans in very harsh circumstances. We try and find good guys and bad guys, but what we have in fact, are humans.”

With Beacon Reader, an online crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter, readers pay a $5 per month subscription (or more) to fund a writer and also get access to every story from every other writer using the site. Lyra’s project will be featured on the Beacon homepage tomorrow when her campaign goes live.

 

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    The complexity of our history and our Troubles is something many of us need to come to terms with. We also need to stop relying on and waiting for the mainstream media to do all the leg work on telling stories. Good on Lyra for keeping the bit between her teeth and pursuing one particular story … hopefully to a conclusion.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    Good luck. I’ve found that with little money it makes much more sense for me to purchase books years after they’ve been published when their price has dropped down to close to nothing. So, maybe one day I’ll read her book. In the meantime I can just wish her good luck.

  • Lyra McKee

    Thanks for the lovely comments, guys. tmitch57, if you can shoot me an email – lyra at muckraker dot me – I’ll happily give you a complimentary subscription. Know how it is RE: money.

  • Lyra McKee

    I mean complementary*. Damn tooth pain is killing my brain cells.

  • Granni Trixie

    I was inspired by this story and it illustrates that children need to know that they are good at something. As a teacher I saw what “the qualie” system did to children’s esteem which is why I am opposed to the selectIon procedure.

    Lyra has a great idea for an interesting narrative,her passion for uncovering the ‘truth’ will animate the story and I would encourage her to see it through to fruition. The premise that such stories are more complicated than tends to be presented in Ni is also a plus in my eyes.

    However (and this is a biggie) she must retain an open mind. I had only one personal exchange with Rev Bradford but it was enough to convey to me that he lived up to his image (“bigot” was the word she used to challenge): not sure of the exact date but it may have been mid 70s. I was not a member of Women Together Group but I joined it for a day to join them in an arranged meeting at his manse. We all lived in the Suffolk-Lenadoon area and wanted to challenge him as he was leading a move to put up a brick wall between the two communities. He gave us tea and cakes but was utterly polite yet patronising,obviously thinking we were a pushover. I personally asked him did he not thnk that he had an obligation to ALL sides of the community and I’ll be blowed if he said no, he had not. As we left the meeting we agreed he was not a man on whom we had made any impression. We had tried to impress on ham that once you put up a wall it is v difficult to take it down.

    That said we were also horrified when he was brutally murdered and I am only conveying my memory of that time to alert Lyra that it may be that he is more like his WIKIPEDIA portrayal than she knows (yes, I know Wikipedia is suspect but sometimes it gets the facts right . For instance, it implies something that before he latterly joined UUP he was in a Vanguard and that he sent a letter of support to British National Front).

  • Charles_Gould

    I had thought complimentary correct Lyra!

    With compliments, CG.

  • Red Lion

    Really interesting to have someone determined to tease out the nuances and the twists and the turns. Am impressed Good Luck!.

    Am always a bit jealous of creative types who actually get to turn their hobby into their job. When you have an artist who paints, writes or does music for a living, often in my experience these are the most happiest deeply contented people I have met.

  • Lyra McKee

    Hey Granni Trixie, thank you so much for sharing your memories – I really appreciate it and I’ll certainly keep an open mind. I’d like to hear more actually – would you mind emailing me please? (Lyra@muckraker.me( If I’m honest, the book isn’t a reassessment of Bradford’s character (some have thought that because, when I’ve been questioned about it before, I’ve been asked for my personal opinion on him as people find it odd that I’m working on the book given my background). It will focus purely on the last weeks of his life and will very much be a factual narrative. For me, I came across things during my research that – to my mind – didn’t quite fit the ‘bigot’ stereotype i.e. Paisley or Seawright. For example, one Catholic community worker I interviewed told me that Bradford worked directly with her and a Catholic priest on bringing the two communities in Suffolk and Lenadoon together. She’d never spoken about it before; at the time, they had to keep it quiet because, she said, people within his party and certain elements on both sides wouldn’t have been too happy about it. Then again, you have the likes of his comments on the Hunger Strikers. I’m still figuring things out, if I’m honest, but I’ve come to the conclusion – so far – that most people are neither heroes nor villains. I get the impression that The Troubles brought out the worst in people on all sides, even in otherwise ordinary people, because it was such a horrible period to live through. For example, just this week, I found comments Gerry Adams made about another murdered politician; he said the only regret Nationalists had was that he wasn’t murdered 40 years sooner. I was really shocked; even with his Smithwick gaffe, I don’t think he would ever say anything like that today.

    Thanks, CG! And Red Lion, very kind of you. Honestly, anyone can do it. It’s been five years of struggle but here’s hoping it’ll all be worth it one day!

  • Charles_Gould

    Lyra

    Best of luck with your project. It sounds very worthwhile.

  • sean treacy

    She states that “our politicians” support the transfer system. This is untrue,SOME of our politicians support it and the SF education minister is doing his utmost to end it.If she cant even get basic facts like this right,what hope of any book getting to the truth ?

  • Lyra McKee

    Hi Sean, I was aware that many politicians don’t support academic selection but you’re right, I should have been much more specific in my language there. In my defence, my mouth was pouring with blood and I was half doped up on laughing gas!

    This raises an important point though. One of the reasons the book is taking so long to come together is because I’m doing my best to get sources to speak on the record and gather documents, rather than relying on the old “a source who spoke on condition of anonymity”. Of course, I speak to sources off the record regularly but, for the most part, they’re just pointing me in the right direction i.e. telling me where I can find evidence. I wanted to tell the story this way so that readers could judge the evidence for themselves. The practice of quoting anonymous sources is often abused and so readers tend to dismiss them now.

    Thanks for flagging this up!

  • Lyra McKee

    Thanks, Charles! I appreciate the love!

  • sean treacy

    Thanks Lyra, its not often journalists admit to getting it wrong.However with regard to your comment about Gerry Adams saying a politician should have been murdered 40 years sooner,could you possibly enlighten us as to exactly where and when this was said?

  • Lyra McKee

    Hey Sean, sure – it was quoted in a book called “Man of War, Man of Peace?” by David Sharrock and Mark Devenport (pg 197); they quoted him saying this in an interview with the Guardian in November 1982. It was about Norman Stronge, the former speaker of the Stormont Parliament.

  • Rab12345

    Hi Lyra,
    Good luck to you with your book.
    I’m not nit-picking, but on what grounds do you call yourself an investigative journalist? As far as I can see you’ve no legitimate published work either print or web-wise. Your own website hardly counts.
    I could call myself a surgeon because I slice up a chicken every Sunday for my family’s dinner, but it doesn’t mean I am one.
    I think its important you answer that, especially as you are asking the public to fund your book.
    Rab

  • Mick Fealty

    I think that original comment can still be found In the Guardian online. In the context of ‘dealing with the past, I think it makes sense to offer some depth at the victim rather than the perpetrator end of the equation. It’s what sits with most of those directly affected.

    If you can get this one ‘ off stone’ and into people’s hands, I can see potential for a series of these..

  • Granni Trixie

    Give over Rab, you are nit picking in that yes Lyra has to build up a track record but what’s wrong with giving yourself a label as a confidence building measure? And asking for a bit of financial help from the public to help you get going is totally legit.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “However with regard to your comment about Gerry Adams saying a politician should have been murdered 40 years sooner”

    Sean, Mick has posted the quote in a Guardian piece:

    In that same year, Adams’ words to this newspaper on the murder of 86-year-old, retired Unionist politician, Sir Norman Stronge, and his son: “The only complaint I have heard from nationalists or anti-unionists is that he was not shot 40 years ago.”

    I’d like to have heard a bit more of this exchange – something to give it context. On its own, it conveys an impression of Gerry as a cold and callous individual. IMO your ‘should have’ is well wide of the mark.

  • Barnshee

    “it may be that he is more like his WIKIPEDIA portrayal than she knows (yes, I know Wikipedia is suspect but sometimes it gets the facts right . For instance, it implies something that before he latterly joined UUP he was in a Vanguard and that he sent a letter of support to British National Front).”

    Facts please no character assassination of a protestant clergymanmurder by a catholic murder gang

  • Granni Trixie

    Barn she

    His death is a terrible wrong but I regret that you have sectarianised the murder.

  • Barnshee

    “His death is a terrible wrong but I regret that you have sectarianised the murder.”

    Protestant clergyman is murdered by roman catholic murder gang and somehow I hae “sectarianised ” the murder.?

  • A Morris

    If ever asked for career advice by aspiring journalists I usually tell them to go do something else. But for those who are determined to work in a notoriously difficult and for most badly paid profession I’d say do a year in a weekly newspaper.
    You can’t do any job properly without training and going in at ground level covering the less glamorous courts, council meetings, inquests while not going to win any awards does give you the essential basic on the job training. Simple things like using your shorthand regularly in court gets you into good habits early on.
    I gained more knowledge about the workings of the criminal justice system covering the magistrates courts than I ever did from any law book.
    Newspapers are under resourced and for a young journalist that’s no bad thing you find yourself doing four people’s jobs for one person’s wage, with that experience under your belt it’s a lot easier to pursue your real goals, be they print, broadcast or online.
    In NI at the minute the only people doing any real investigative online journalism are The Detail and the journalists working there, Kathryn Torney, Barry McCaffrey and Stephen McCaffery have all spent decades working in weekly and daily newspapers building contacts and gaining knowledge. They are a good example of investigative journalists. You can’t be expected to do that straight out of school or further education, it takes time and training.
    I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving yourself a title it shows ambition, but there is a need to know how the profession you aspire to be a part of works.
    Books about the Conflict are notoriously difficult to sell, even when written by someone with a track record in politics and journalism and a publishing house helping with promotion, so Lyra certainly hasn’t set herself and easy task. I wish her the best of luck with the book, I’ve heard several conflicting stories about Bradford’s last few months so I’ll read it with interest.

  • Gerry Lvs castro

    Nevin: ”On its own, it conveys an impression of Gerry as a cold and callous individual. ”

    Imagine that and him the embodiment of warmth and cuddliness.

    Reminds me of his reaction to the Teebane massacre, when six entirely innocent protestant workmen were murdered and eight others seriously injured by the military wing of the party Gerry was leading.

    He said it was ‘a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland.’ Fairly gives you a warm glow doesn’t it?

  • cynic2

    “you have sectarianised the murder”

    You miss the point. The suggestion that it was just a sectarian murder is too simplistic. There may be other explanations:

    * Demonic Possession
    * A link to the Priory of Sion / Opus Dei as part of an international conspiracy linked to the Holy Grail buried in Poleglass
    * An experiment by aliens gone wrong

    Why not ask Gerry? I am sure he can imagine a few more. He is an author after all

  • David Crookes

    Nevin: ”On its own, it conveys an impression of Gerry as a cold and callous individual.” Correct. If I butcher your elderly father, or declare his murder to have been overdue, either fact on its own proves me to be a cold and callous individual.

    PLEASE let us not have the Ueber-Clever Olympian Balanced View, again. “But Hitler was very kind to dogs…..”

    Either GA meant what he said, or else he didn’t. If he didn’t, he was unfit for decent human society. If he did, he was unfit for decent human society.

    One thing that makes it hard for unionists to contemplate a unified Ireland is their belief that SF in a UI would try to behave like Robert Mugabe. When GA speaks as he does, fails to retract, lies about his membership of the IRA, and covers up for a monster, who can blame unionists for fearing the worst?

    Now to the thread. It would have been easy for a determined IRA to murder any unionist politician at a time of its choice, but the political class tends to get a bit sensitive when politicians are murdered. It is therefore fair to ask why the murders of Robert Bradford, Edgar Graham, Lord Mountbatten, and Airey Neave, having been allowed to happen, were followed by no condign state action. “Conspiracy theorist!” cry the all-knowing crash test dummies. Oh, dear. Every time I drive past Northwood Road I remember one evil conspiracy in the USA, and ask myself if that one was the last of its kind.

    The unsoldierly and unheroic murders of Robert Bradford, Edgar Graham, and Lord Mountbatten are bound to be seen as disgraceful by any group of men which calls itself an army. That is why some of us wonder whether any such group was ultimately responsible for their deaths.

    In spite of the impression that silly journalists try to give us, we don’t know everything. The papers of ROY Bradford have been deposited in the local public records office, but if you want to read most of the interesting ones you’ll have to wait for fifty years. And across the water, certain documents relating to Rudolf Hess may not be read until 2017.

  • Granni Trixie

    Seems i need to explain that I was referring to the sectarianising of murderers and the murdered because my response to such an action is not dependant on information about their perceived religion. hence we have no Protestant tears or catholic tears,just tears. It does not mean that I do not accept that there are often sectarian motives in killings in NI just that I refuse to identify with them on the basis of their religion being the same as my own. And I refuse to accept the concept of “legitimate targets” too. It isn’t a complex moral problem to say murder is murder is murder.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “One thing that makes it hard for unionists to contemplate a unified Ireland is their belief that SF in a UI would try to behave like Robert Mugabe. When GA speaks as he does, fails to retract, lies about his membership of the IRA, and covers up for a monster, who can blame unionists for fearing the worst?”

    Spot on Mr C!!!

    SF and the Provos (gleefully aided by the opportunistic fear mongering of unionist leaders) have done for the image of unification what Ian Paisley has done for the image of Northern Ireland Protestants.

    Of course, anyone who thinks this way is traitor to Ireland/Lundy (delete as applicable)…

    ————————————-

    Before I sidetrack the whole thread I would like to wish Lyra all the best.

    I’ll also ponder her experience of academic selection, I was unaware of such views.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, AG. When our Algerian moment arrives, it will be born in the intellects of sensible unionists. Once we all stop running back to the past, and start walking toward the future, exciting things may happen very quickly. SF might find itself a diminutive nobody’s darling in a civilized new Ireland.

    Whether or whenever that comes to pass, there is plenty of work for Lyra. John Carson’s biography would make a very interesting read.

  • Turgon

    Ms. McKee is to be congratulated on what will hopefully be a useful project. I have only one reservation and it is not in any way Ms. McKee’s fault. Rev. Robert Bradford’s case is interesting in that he was an important and significant figure.

    The victims of the sectarian murder squads I know of from their friends and relatives (thankfully not personal experience) were all fairly unimportant people in the great scheme of things: Protestants from Fermanagh and South Londonderry; random pensioners; police constables and sergeants; UDR privates.

    These people were, however, just as important to their friends and families and they were just as assuredly murdered by the squalid sectarian murder gangs of the IRA just as the random Catholics murdered by the Loyalist alphabet soup (or those killed at Bloody Sunday – and yes I regard them as murdered) were important to their friends and families. However, few if any of the above of both sides merit the work of a journalist. It calls to mind Wilfred Owen’s words: What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

    So congratulations and all the best Ms. McKee but lest we forget the others too.

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    @Lyra,

    I tried emailing you but had my message kicked back. Send me an email at tom_mitchell57@hotmail.com.

  • Seamuscamp

    “he said the only regret Nationalists had was that he wasn’t murdered 40 years sooner.”
    ““The only complaint I have heard from nationalists or anti-unionists is that he was not shot 40 years ago.”

    Lyra, I don’t know which of these statements is true, but they are radically different. If you can’t see the difference, you have a problem.

  • Reader

    Seamuscamp: Lyra, I don’t know which of these statements is true, but they are radically different. If you can’t see the difference, you have a problem.
    It wasn’t a direct quote; and translating Shinner euphemisms is the sort of thing that the rest of us have got used to doing on the fly.
    Or is it that you think that shooting elderly retired politicians is not actually murder?

  • Zig70

    I’m not saying anything about Rev Bradford, I know little of the man and look forward to hearing his story. However in NI you can’t judge a bigot by his acquaintances. There are a lot of people who go to work each day and work and smile with with folk they wouldn’t shed a tear for.

  • DC

    “He had this final story that he didn’t get to finish. So I want to finish his final story. Find out what it was and see it through to the end.”

    Such as?

  • Granni Trixie

    Didn’t RB wife Norah write his/their story as “A Sword Bathed in Heaven” (or some such title). Whilst there is likely to be interest in an outsiders perspective, it would surely have to have “new” information.

  • TinaCalder

    I usually never involve myself in Northern Ireland blogs and commenting, especially on political subjects given my expertise is a far cry away from there.
    However, I have been following the career of Lyra for many years, ever since she came to my former news agency as a student journalist and then became a regular contributor.
    I understand that this is an incredibly ambitious project and one that Lyra has worked tirelessly for years to pursue and for that I cannot commend her enough.
    I see that someone has suggested that Lyra “do her time” as it were in local newspapers etc….I am actually dumbfounded that there are still people who believe that this is the only successful track to becoming an investigative reporter…and to suggest that Lyra has little or no “track record” I find is insulting to a young woman who has worked incredibly hard over the years to produce work for internationally renowned websites as well as her own.
    When Lyra worked for me she was actually more experienced in the use of the FOI system than many “experienced” journalists I knew including myself and she has uncovered a wealth of information as a result.
    I think in times like this we should be commending the hard work and perseverance of a young (but not inexperienced) reporter, not trying to make them feel inadequate because they didn’t pursue the “usual” route to the industry.
    In fact, I myself did not pursue the usual route and have never once set foot in a court room – but yet have had a varied and what I would consider successful career in this industry.
    Regardless of what people may think of Lyra’s choice of subject for her book I think a little less negativity and a bit more positivity wouldn’t go a miss to support and encourage her in her mammoth task that I have no doubt someone with her tenacity, determination and hard work ethic will complete.