McKee bravely shone a light on sectarian violence in Northern Ireland — then became one of its victims
Published: 1 September 2019
Though I’ve known many people bereaved or injured during 25 years of covering Northern Ireland as a journalist, Lyra McKee is the only friend of mine to be murdered. It was just after 6am on Good Friday, April 19, that I received an email at home in London from Ann Travers, a Dublin-based campaigner for terrorism victims; she told me Lyra, just 29, had been shot the night before as she stood next to a police car while reporting from a riot in Londonderry. At first, we could barely take it in. Lyra’s passion, courage and talent were earning her a fine reputation as a journalist both at home in Northern Ireland and, increasingly, internationally. It seemed inconceivable that she was dead.
“I just keep waiting to hear her voice saying, ‘Travers, I’m not dead but when I am I’ll haunt you!’ ” Ann wrote. “And that mad laugh of hers.”
Ann and I had had plenty of experience of that laugh. We had both been recruited into Lyra’s menagerie towards the end of 2013, when she was researching a book about the IRA murders of Robert Bradford, an Ulster Unionist MP, and Ken Campbell, a caretaker at the Belfast community centre where Bradford had been holding his constituency surgery. Lyra thought the gun used to kill them might have been the same as that used to kill Mary Travers — Ann’s sister — in an IRA shooting in 1984. She approached me because she was looking for a journalistic mentor: I would assist her by introducing her to useful people, dragooning friends into helping crowdfund her research, and giving advice.
Ann and I had each been impressed by this bespectacled, initially nervous 23-year-old, who — having decided she liked us — established an easy intimacy through constant calls and messages. We admired her commitment to finding out the truth and enjoyed her idiosyncrasies. Ann was always “Travers”; I was “Lovely” or “Miss DE”. Thrilled at the rare experience of having a friend shorter than me, I called her “Midget”. Ann was old enough to be her mother, I, her grandmother; but age was always irrelevant with Lyra, except when she was irritated by being asked for ID when she ordered an alcoholic drink.
If, during her lifetime, Lyra’s skill was to bring people together, so it was also to prove in death. There has been a political vacuum in Northern Ireland since 2017, when power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed in acrimony. Yet, the day after Lyra was murdered, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and the Sinn Fein president, Mary Lou McDonald, stood together in solidarity at a vigil for her. The following week, a televised non-sectarian service was held for Lyra at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. It was attended by the Irish president, the Lord-Lieutenant of Belfast representing the Queen, the British and Irish prime ministers, the leaders of Irish political parties, right down the social hierarchy to homeless people whom Lyra had always chatted to. Father Martin Magill was one of the speakers. He asked the congregation, “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?” The question provoked a standing ovation and went viral.
A few weeks after her funeral, I sat one Sunday evening in a soulless Belfast hotel bar to reminisce about her with three men she used to mention to me often. There was Gavyn Anderson, a member of the Orange Order who had been her friend since they were teenagers at technical college; William Ennis, a left-wing loyalist 10 years her senior who became one of her cinema-going circle; and fiftysomething Stephen Lusty, a mentor to Lyra when she was thinking of becoming a technology entrepreneur before her journalism took off.
Though we were all shocked and sad, what I most remember of our meeting was the laughter as we swapped stories of Lyra’s strange — often comic — mixture of innocence, curiosity and directness. She talked endlessly and was the mistress of the bizarre but seriously meant question. Stephen had coped with being asked why Protestants ate more vegetables than Catholics, but had been flummoxed by, “What’s it like having a penis?” When friends commented on the oddness of some of her questions, Lyra would explain that she was “a bit autisticy”. But what we also agreed was how non-judgmental she was, how she always saw the best in people and how extraordinarily concerned, loving and loyal she was to her friends. If you were Lyra’s friend, she would do anything for you. Once, hearing that I had agreed to address a large group of republican dissidents in Dublin who hated everything I wrote about Irish history or politics, she insisted on coming down from Belfast to give me moral support. There were times when she stayed on the phone all night to a troubled friend who couldn’t sleep.
“Northern Ireland is a beautiful tragedy, strangled by the chains of its past and its present,” Lyra wrote in Angels with Blue Faces, her book published posthumously in August. The Troubles preoccupied her, even though they had officially ended when she was eight. They were, she wrote, “an A-Z guide of the barbarity of human nature. If you wanted to know how shitty your fellow humans could be, you could pluck a random page in the encyclopaedia known as Lost Lives — a record of every murder during that 30-year period of Northern Ireland’s history — and get an insight into man’s capacity to betray his neighbour, his work colleague, his best friend and maybe even his own father.”
The province had proved to be a perfect environment for producing a writer whose considerable talent was augmented by a combination of compassion, open-mindedness, realism and doggedness in pursuit of the truth.
Yet she had started life with no obvious advantages. Born in 1990, she lived in a council house in north Belfast’s Cliftonville Road, just off “Murder Mile”, beside what was euphemistically known as a “peace wall” built to separate Catholics from Protestants. Loyalist and republican paramilitaries ruled their respective roosts. The child of a single mother, Lyra had trouble with her speech and struggled academically, but her great good fortune was a loving home distanced from the tribalism of the neighbourhood. Lyra was baptised Roman Catholic, but sectarianism was a foreign concept to the family. Her mother, Joan, had brought up her first five children in Canada, before returning to Belfast where Lyra was born. From the beginning, she was “our wee Lyra”, the adored pet of her siblings, particularly Nichola, 15 years her senior, and her godmother.
From her earliest years Lyra’s curiosity was so intense that her mother recalled cries of “Why? Why?” rather than “Mammy! Mammy!”. She discovered a love of books after a teacher read her class a comic story by Roald Dahl, and she was nine when her grandmother gave her Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, igniting her lifelong passion for the series. Yet she struggled academically, failed the 11-plus, went to a Catholic secondary school where she was bullied, and after puberty became tormented when she realised she was lesbian. “The first lesson I learnt about being gay was that it was evil and that I was going to hell for it,” she would say in a TED talk in 2017. “I learnt that from the Bible.”
In August 2014, aged 24, she wrote a letter to her 14-year-old self and posted it on her blog, The Muckraker. It began, “Kid, it’s going to be OK.” It continued, “You’re not feeling that way right now. You’re sitting in school. The other kids are making fun of you. You told the wrong person you had a crush, and soon, they all knew your secret. It’s horrible. They make your life hell. They laugh at you, whisper about you and call you names. It’s not nice. And you can’t ask an adult for help because if you did that, you’d have to tell them the truth and you can’t do that. They can’t ever know your secret.”
Every day, she woke up wondering who else would find out that secret and hate her, call her “weird”, “odd”, a “lesbo”, and shout at her in the street.
In her teens, Lyra had experienced gay friends being rejected by their families, so it wasn’t until she was 20 that she had the courage to come out to her mother. As she told her 14-year-old self, “You will be sobbing and shaking and she will be frightened because she doesn’t know what’s wrong … You can’t get the words out so she says it: ‘Are you gay?’ And you will say, ‘Yes Mummy, I’m so sorry.’ And instead of getting mad, she will reply ‘Thank God you’re not pregnant.’ You will crawl into her lap, sobbing, as she holds you and tells you that you are her little girl and how could you ever think that anything would make her love you any less?” The family were nothing but kind and supportive.
Other aspects of her life had also been getting better. Having written for the school newspaper, she had been persuaded to get involved with the charity Children’s Express, which ran a voluntary news agency. At 16 she won the Sky Young Journalist Award, beating a field of more than 160 other 14- to 19-year-olds, for an article on suicides in north Belfast. It was praised for being “informative, touching and delicately handled”, demonstrating “an ability and level of maturity beyond her years”. Educationally, however, she still had difficulties. She dropped out of school at 16, went to the local technical college and then to Queen’s University but dropped out again because it was “too big and scary”.
As a journalist, though, she had tenacity. At 18, through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, she published a piece in Private Eye exposing civil service attempts to undermine funding of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre in Belfast. “It was,” said the magazine after her death, “the sort of story an experienced journalist twice her age would have been proud of.”
The journalist Barry McCaffrey recalls her in 2011 bounding into the newsroom of The Detail, a new investigative reporting website, “like a bundle of nervous, youthful energy … Blogging, citizen journalism, self-publishing books — it was the birth of digital journalism and Lyra was the living embodiment of it all.” Lyra had many issues she cared about deeply, including the protection of abused women, suicide, free speech, libel-law reform, investigative journalism, single-sex marriage, constructive politics and the importance of talking with civility even to people whose views you loathe. But her abiding passion was for telling the stories of the ignored, desperate, forgotten and unfashionable.
At 22, in her Muckraker blog, she was writing about being an investigative reporter. “When the story involves facts and numbers — like poor use of public money — I get angry but I don’t get upset. When it involves people — an abused child, a grieving family with questions about what happened to their father — it becomes personal. I can’t stop thinking about it … All of my energy goes into pursuing the story.”
In her short life, she poked around in dark corners and peered under stones. It was Lyra who exposed the fact that more people took their own lives in Northern Ireland in the 16 years after the Troubles than had died during them. And that her generation, known as “the Ceasefire Babies”, was burdened with the traumas inherited from the decades of violence and still lived in “the shadow of the gunman”.
As the editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Gail Walker, would put it, Lyra “was gifted with a forensically sharp mind, a curiosity that could border on the obsessive and an ability to compose the most beautiful sentences”. It was the obsessive curiosity that made Lyra take the plunge with Beacon Reader, a crowdfunding platform for journalists, where in 2014 she pitched her book about the murder of Robert Bradford and raised enough money to buy herself time to pursue the unanswered questions.
Lyra was increasingly convinced that his murder could be connected with cover-ups about the appalling sexual abuse at the Kincora boys’ home that had been partially exposed in 1980. She believed him to be a man of integrity who intended to go public with information that might embarrass the state. Her hypothesis was that the authorities had sufficient information to prevent him being assassinated, but that he was sacrificed to save the life of a valuable informer.
Her book, which she couldn’t get published until this year, ultimately proved inconclusive about the Bradford case. But she had partially written another on missing and forgotten children, which won her a two-book contract with Faber and Faber. “I was hooked by McKee’s singular, crisp prose,” wrote her editor, “and I loved the blend of investigative journalism, true crime, memoir and social history … I think Lyra McKee has a long and prestigious writing career ahead of her.”
Lyra’s friends rejoiced over the past year, for not only was everything going well professionally, but she was deeply in love. Ten weeks before her murder, she was living much of the week in Londonderry with Sara Canning, a vivacious, confident woman with whom she had immediately clicked on social media. Lyra was still guiltily enjoying a life of terrible food. Her second-last tweet was: “Slimming World is like going to confession. This week, I confessed to Burger King, a brownie, a white hot chocolate, a large bucket of popcorn, a large Coke, and a bag of Maltesers … Amazing I put only half a pound on this week.”
Lyra was no war correspondent, indeed Nichola said she was “a scaredy-cat”. So when the run-of-the-mill riot she and Sara were taking a look at was getting serious, she took refuge beside a police car, and thus became the victim of someone trying to shoot a policeman. Sara took me to the scene of Lyra’s death, where the only sign of what had happened was a lamppost with a few wilted flowers. The New IRA has admitted to being responsible for the shooting, but, at the time this magazine went to press, nobody had been charged.
Lyra’s death has brought her the fame she would have loved to earn in life. Her photograph is everywhere, and there has been a plethora of tributes, awards and commemorative events, many from LGBT sources. But gay rights was only one of her many causes. Her sympathy with society’s losers was reflected in Nichola’s speech after an event called Lyra’s Walk that began in Belfast and ended in what Lyra called Legenderry to avoid the sectarian wrestling over whether it should be called Derry or Londonderry. In her sister’s name, Nichola pledged to the killer that if he handed himself in, she would be there to support him.
Yet as different interest groups vie for possession, the family’s nightmare is intensified. “My mummy does feel that people have been treating her daughter as public property and she wants to ask people to stop doing that,” said Nichola on the radio recently.
The real woman is in danger of being lost to single-issue hijackers. What distresses her mother is how Lyra’s image, her words and the very fact of her death are used freely by activists to bolster their causes without consulting her family. “Events have sprung up from everywhere dedicated to Lyra, or in her honour, in the past few months,” Nichola told me. “The vast majority of the organisers do not contact, seek permission from or even invite my mom or any of our family to these.” Many, she said, sadly, “are using Lyra’s name — the name we gave her — for anything going.”
I’ve read a great deal of Lyra’s writing and what moved me most was part of what she inscribed in a Harry Potter book for Ava, her adored great-niece who arrived when she was 25. “You are more loved than you will ever know,” Lyra wrote. “Long after I’m gone, I hope you will remember that you made my life magical just by being in it. You’re only 10 months old, as I write this, but I trust that one day — when you need it — you’ll read this message and know that you are loved and that you possess all the magic you’ll ever need to make life great.”
When I think of my wee friend, it is Philip Larkin’s famous line that always comes to mind: “What will survive of us is love.”