It’s the saddest of ironies that Lyra McKee was promoting and living a lifestyle that was the powerful counter to the old siren calls of nineteenth century militant nationalism and imperialism – just the thing to drag bored and disaffected youth out of its rut. Her grieving partner Sara Canning and the rest of her family will take comfort from the fact that Lyra will live on in her work and the example of her life. As an insightful and very personal campaigner for personal freedom, her appeal reaches across the divide. Described in the media as “an investigative journalist” she broke new ground by investigating the neglected diversity of life as it’s lived today rather than uncovering the details of conflict.
With his experience of a lifetime in Derry, Denis Bradley was reminded of the reaction to the murder of Ranger William Best, only months after Bloody Sunday. He was a young soldier, the product of a mixed marriage, who must have felt safe back home on leave because the Royal Irish Rangers were exempt from service on the streets. For the Official IRA already losing a savage feud with the Provisionals, he was a convenient soft target to show they were still in business.
Before the cameras, hundreds of women from the Creggan stormed the Bogside Inn where the Official IRA leaders were meeting to demand a halt to killing. Against the background of continuing violence their action contributed to that organisation’s ceasefire. But the violence continued for another quarter century.
Denis longs for a similar response today. The one that counts most immediately has to come from the community, as every one of them well knows. The news of two arrests so promptly and without further disturbances may turn out to be encouraging. The dissidents operate in a climate very different from thirty years ago. The idea shouldn’t be cynically dismissed that they will be confounded by the force of public opinion. But nor can it be relied on.
The demonstrations of revulsion and solidarity at her killing were necessary acts. Arlene Foster was applauded as she stood with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill on her first visit to the Creggan, just as she was warmly greeted at Martin McGuinness’s funeral two years ago on her first visit to the Bogside a mile away. The reality of peace, even incomplete peace, allowed her to do both.
But the next response from political parties is more problematical.
A rash of editorials is appearing to urge the politicians to fill the vacuum and end the Stormont stand-off. But apart from expressing condemnation, what else unites them will impress the considerable numbers susceptible to the dissidents’ appeal? The relationship between political progress and a cessation of politically labelled violence is more complicated that it seems.
The past shows that the cycle of violence had to be broken before politics stood a chance. The Republican movement in particular required a structure of incentives to dispel the impression of surrender. But the residue of paramilitaries that survives is not amenable to such a process. It’s a tough nut to crack and it can still germinate.
A decade ago, Martin McGuinness used his prestige among republicans to call the dissidents “traitors.” He was acknowledging that Sinn Fein were now on the other side and assuming responsibility in a reformed government. In this essential sense Sinn Fein have not resiled. But they face a smaller but more elusive target than Michael Collins did a century ago.
In the psychopathology of the “New IRA,” acts of solidarity only confirm the politicians as traitors to a cause that remains unfulfilled.They are able to identify with continuing anger and grievance. The charge of murder against a single Bloody Sunday shows the legacy of the Troubles remains unfinished business.
How do Sinn Fein answer – should they try to answer – the gibe of the dissidents that they are the traitors now? The belief of Sinn Fein’s core that they were failing to make progress on the road to unity and on equal status under the GFA was the given reason for pulling out of Stormont. Would the dissidents quit if an Irish language Act was passed tomorrow? Hardly.
Once the shock of this killing has subsided, the temptation for the parties will be to assume that their positions will survive the odd murder and the occasional bomb. They should not be allowed to get away with it. A reduction in the practice of identity politics that heightens sectarian tensions would be one meaningful response to Lyra’s death. From her writing it seemed obvious to her that these days there were more important things in life than the national identity of the state you live in. While that ought to have been one of the legacies of peace, it has yet to be learned. National identity is now a matter of personal choice; it is no longer a fight for freedom.
The parties have yet to catch up with that salient fact and teach it to their supporters. Their abiding failure to do so creates the vacuum the neo-republicans are so eager to fill. The lesson cannot be left to the nice people in the community relations and reconciliation businesses. It has to come with conviction from the parties themselves.
Can we expect a muting of communal rhetoric during what’s left in the council elections campaign and the Euro elections to come ? Or after a short pause will they ramp it up as electoral tensions reach a climax? Dare we look further ahead and talk about a new momentum to restore Stormont, whether hampered or stimulated by the Brexit outcome? Or is this kind of talk no more than cliché?
The priest who gave Lyra last rites has spoken out against both sides’ “ war games” and the symbolism that dominates the Bogside and many other places that so entertains the tourists. Murals depict grievances undischarged and hatreds kept alive. They can’t easily be dismissed, much less removed. The endless task of tactfully scaling down sectarian demonstration is often opposed by politicians. While they can be commended for gestures of sympathy towards a victim of outrage they should be forcefully reminded of the potential cost the next time they beat the drum. What the politicians need to do most of all is to widen their emotional range beyond one-off gestures of humanity, and the people should allow them to do so.
No doubt about it, the old causes can still be cool to a new generation. Pious talk of peace is pathetic if you haven’t got much to cut your teeth on. Mixed with drugs running it becomes an enclosed, even trapped way of life.
Lyra McKee spoke and wrote of a world of challenges just as great but which can be met in the light and the open air. People of all sorts should examine the legacy of Lyra McKee. Perhaps then, real politics and the better life she spoke of will follow.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London