I Lived Through The Troubles – Lyra McKee's Tragic Death Is A Reminder We Are Never That Far Away From Those Dark Times

We have a responsibility to ensure Lyra’s death was not in vain. Instead let her murder be a warning of what can happen when politicians and the powers that be tune out
Liam McBurney - PA Images via Getty Images

I remember sitting in my da’s music room as a boy, looking through and listening to his LPs. I pulled one off the shelf and was struck by the image of Luke Kelly of the Dubliners on the cover, so I stuck it on and out came a haunting voice singing Phil Coulter’s song, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. It tells the story of a young man who returns to his native Derry after having been away and how overwhelmed he is to find a very different town to the one he’d left. It was through this song that I suddenly came face to face with my time and place. The dots connected ― I was ten. One line in the song always puts me back in my da’s music room and in Derry itself every time I hear or sing it:

In the early morning the shirt-factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor, and the Bog.

I was reminded once more of this song when I read about the death of 29-year-old investigative journalist Lyra McKee who, echoing Yeats’ “terrible beauty”, once described Northern Ireland as a “beautiful tragedy”. The real tragedy, of course, is that on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Lyra was killed by a dissident republican’s bullet in the Creggan in Derry, where she had been covering a riot.

The timing of McKee’s death adds unwelcomed poignancy to the tragedy, for had she lived one more day, she may well have written about, remembered or tentatively celebrated the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in the knowledge that our so-called ‘peace process’ was in serious need of CPR. But instead, this anniversary – associated with hope for two decades – is now an anniversary of a different sort. It is a bloody reminder that the vacuum created by the absence of leadership at the Stormont Assembly – or, more accurately, Disassembly – and the confusion and fear over the ‘backstop’ must be addressed and not casually dismissed or wished away by Northern Ireland’s communities or those ‘across the water’.

Lyra had spoken of the amnesia for all things Northern Irish in the ‘mainland’ UK, many of whose residents consider our province to be another planet. To my mind, politicians on both islands seem like college students who’ve already put in several requests for essay extensions from their Brussels professors. But procrastination, vacillation, and diving under the duvet to wish it all away only serve to make matters worse.

We’re now over twenty years into the ‘peace process’ made possible by the Good Friday Agreement. We’ve somehow managed to muddle our way through till now and have even celebrated each passing year, renewing our sense of purpose and counting our achievements as well as our lucky stars. However, the murder of Lyra McKee on this anniversary will forever more conjure the ghosts of Troubles past. Did she have to pay the ultimate price just to make us realise that talk and fear of a return to the dark days of the Troubles isn’t hyperbole? And what are we to make of the theft of eleven ATMs in Ireland by dissident Republicans in recent months or the marching of the dissident Saoradh group down Dublin’s main street on Easter Monday? Two words: writing; wall.

On 23 June 2016, 55.8% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain within the European Union. Despite this clear message, many Northern Irish folk have since withdrawn into the confines of their own respective tribes, as they half-turn to each other and ask: “Whatsit all about? Back-what?” In moments of self-interrogation, we beat ourselves up with questions such as: What are we really running away from? What are we escaping to?

And so, an already volatile state-of-affairs has become a potentially incendiary one, and politicians (who haven’t governed since the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive collapsed in January 2017) stoke the embers of the recent past, as the good ones like Lyra – who represent another and newer Northern Irish narrative – end up getting caught in the crossfire.

Salman Rushdie’s once said: “Give me a line drawn across the world and I’ll give you an argument.” Northern Ireland is a case in point with senses of identity, the self, and the other heightening under the pressure caused by fear of the backstop. No one in or outside Northern Ireland – seems to have the foggiest as to what’s really going on or what will constitute a border when B-day finally arrives. It was something, someone (the politicians), would eventually sort out, right?

Unionism’s very sense of Britishness is being compromised and with marching season just around the corner, more ‘Troublespeak’ collocations such as ‘siege mentality’ are sneaking back into daily discourse. By the time it’s all over, it might very well take a lot more than incentive grants to keep the whole thing from going up. Like forest fires, the Twelfth of July’s notorious ‘bonnies’ could easily rage out of control, but that’s only if we take the bait.

The last journalist to die in Northern Ireland was Martin O’Hagan, who in 2001 was shot by loyalist terrorists. Again, like Martin, Lyra was murdered during ‘peace time’, post-Troubles, ceasefires and agreements; and they should both be with us today looking back but pointing forward. Lyra’s death is yet another reminder of the dark days the majority of people on the island of Ireland voted to leave behind.

I lived through ‘The Troubles’ and bore witness to the beginning of their end as a sound engineer with a production company in Belfast in 1994 while covering the IRA ceasefire and speeches at Connolly House. Lyra would have been but four years old at the time, I was 23. Good timing and fortune should have put her out of harm’s way. Instead, her death is a reminder that we’re never that far away from going back. That said, there can be no going back, that much we do know.

They say that hope is the last thing to go. Hope was a stranger for three decades during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Let Lyra’s death be a warning of what can happen when politicians and the powers that be tune out. Throughout Ireland’s troubled history, there have always been opportunists lying in wait, willing to capitalise on such despondency and political vacuums such as the one we currently find ourselves in. Lyra’s death and life made me think of Omagh and the 29 people (one of whom had been expecting twins) who perished as a result of a dissident Republican bomb, again, during so-called post-Troubles ‘peace time’. Voting comes with huge responsibilities and consequences. It might be time for us to reflect and accept some responsibility for our actions and to be careful what we wish for. Moreover, we have a responsibility to ensure that Lyra’s death wasn’t in vain.

As we stand on the precipice, the last verse of The Town I Loved So Well may well be worth noting:

Now the music’s gone but they carry on
for their spirit’s been bruised never broken
they will not forget but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again.
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won
and what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright brand new day
in the town I loved so well.

Steafan Hanvey is author of Reconstructions: The Troubles in Photographs and Words, by Merrion Press


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