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Kevin Cullen

Absolute madness and the shadow of a gunman in Derry

Journalist Lyra McKee was killed while covering a riot in Derry.
Journalist Lyra McKee was killed while covering a riot in Derry.(Jess Lowe/AFP)

Lyra McKee was a good soul.

She was an elder among the “ceasefire babies,” the first generation to grow up in Northern Ireland when the Troubles were referred to in the past tense.

The Belfast where McKee grew up is still largely segregated by religion and national aspiration, with Catholic nationalists on one side and Protestant unionists on the other.

But there is relative peace, and young people like her could realistically aspire to a shared island, where the living counted more than the dead.

A 29-year-old journalist of unlimited potential, McKee represented the new Ireland.

But someone who represented the old one shot her dead Thursday night, in Creggan, a neighborhood in Derry that saw more than its fair share of heartache during the Troubles.

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She was shot as a group that styles itself as the New IRA stirred up new trouble with old shibboleths. They started a good, old-fashioned riot, which back in the bad old days, broke out all over Northern Ireland with the regularity of rain.

They threw petrol bombs at cops, hijacked cars and lit them on fire, and put everybody on notice that they would not stand idly by in an Ireland where the future will be guided by consent instead of the barrel of a pointed gun.

In Ireland, the shadow of the gunman is always lurking, and on Thursday night, that gunman knelt on Fanad Drive in the Creggan and fired.

Lyra McKee was standing on Fanad Drive because she was a journalist. Ironically, Lyra was especially empathetic to those who had been victimized by violence during the Troubles. She spent years interviewing them, determined that their stories be told even as Northern Ireland tried to move beyond the Troubles.

She came of age when it still wasn’t easy to come out but so much safer than it had been. She was of the first generation of young gay people in Northern Ireland who felt confident enough to be themselves and to damn the begrudgers and the fundamentalists.

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And so she identified keenly with those who suffered for no reason other than being who they are, Protestant or Catholic or neither. While people congratulated each other on a new, peaceful Northern Ireland, she wrote about the ceasefire babies who are killing themselves with a despair that speaks of new troubles.

The past is never very far away in Ireland. Last month, a former British soldier was charged with murder for his part in the killing by British paratroopers of 13 unarmed people who took part in a civil rights demonstration in Derry in 1972, on what became known as Bloody Sunday. That historic protest march began in Creggan, not far from where Lyra McKee fell. Bloody Sunday, and the British government’s cynical attempt to whitewash it, fed the Troubles like gas to a flame, flooding the IRA with recruits.

Lyra McKee died on the cusp of Easter, a date held sacred in the mythology of the people who killed her. The New IRA considers the old IRA, the Provisionals, sellouts for having accepted the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that established the principle of consent, that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of those living there vote otherwise.

The New IRA see themselves as the rightful heirs to the physical force tradition of Irish republicanism that launched a quixotic rebellion in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. They have little support, but they plant bombs and fire guns and start riots with a self-assured arrogance that needs no mandate.

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And they do so, former IRA volunteer Shane O’Doherty told me, safe in the knowledge that after the tide of revulsion over Lyra McKee’s murder ebbs, most people will simply move on.

“The New IRA will survive this shooting, as the [Provisional] IRA survived a long list of atrocities,” said O’Doherty, who joined the IRA when he was 15 and spent just as many years in prison for sending letter bombs that maimed people. O’Doherty later renounced violence and apologized to his victims.

Sara Canning, the partner of Lyra McKee, spoke at a rally for McKee near the scene of her shooting.
Sara Canning, the partner of Lyra McKee, spoke at a rally for McKee near the scene of her shooting.(Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

On Friday, Good Friday, Lyra McKee’s partner, Sara Canning, stood on Fanad Drive, lamenting a lover lost, a champion of the ordinary person and the vulnerable lost.

“The senseless murder of Lyra McKee has left a family without a beloved daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a great aunt,” Canning told a vigil gathering. “Left so many friends without their confidant, victims and LGBT community left without a tireless advocate and activist, and has left me without the love of my life. The woman I was planning to grow old with. We are all poorer for the loss of Lyra.”

Lyra McKee gave a wonderful TED talk about tolerance. I’m assuming the man who shot her and his mates never watched it nor would have changed their ways if they had. They draw their inspiration not from the shared, tolerant, pluralistic future that Lyra McKee believed in deeply, but from a past where grievances are nursed like pints.

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As Canning and others who loved Lyra McKee plan her funeral, the rough beast that is Brexit slouches towards Belfast. A political class in the United Kingdom, which wouldn’t know Derry from Derbyshire, is determined to lead the UK out of the European Union in such a reckless fashion that 40 years of painstaking diplomacy by the British and Irish governments, greatly assisted by Americans, could be flushed away the same way Northern Ireland was created, by fiat.

If the Brexiteers in Parliament who are so obsessed with freeing themselves from the Franco-German axis in Brussels are so feckless as to force a restoration of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, they might as well send a shipment of weapons to the New IRA, because that sort of ignorant irresponsibility ensures that there will be more Lyra McKees, shot dead or blown up or beaten unrecognizable. In the north of Ireland, Brexit isn’t about the future so much as it is about the past.

Witnesses saw a gunman crouch down and fire randomly toward the police lines Thursday night in Creggan. Presumably he was aiming at the police Land Rover, next to which Lyra McKee was standing.

Whoever killed Lyra McKee no doubt will blame the Crown forces and British perfidy rather than look in the mirror. Maybe that gunman has a son or will have a son, and maybe some day that son will say, “Daddy, what did you do for Ireland?”

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And if that gunman is honest, he’ll turn to his son and say, “I shot a wee woman in Derry. Her name was Lyra.”

Lyra’s book, “The Lost Boys,” will be published posthumously. It is about the young men disappeared by paramilitary groups on both sides during the Troubles. The title just as well describes those who killed her.

Lyra’s last words, sent in a tweet while she covered a riot, captured with horrific precision both her own demise and the idea that the island she grew up on needs new borders: “Absolute madness.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.