Wednesday 16 October 2019

Lyra McKee's sister: 'I just stood in the street and I screamed and screamed and screamed'

Just eight weeks on from the Belfast journalist's murder at the hands of New IRA gunman, her sister Nichola tells of the devastation caused to the family

Lyra on her first communion, Photo: Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph
Lyra on her first communion, Photo: Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen

MAY 1997. A girl with short brown hair and glasses on her first communion day in a big white dress with puff sleeves and a veil.

That dress has been handmade. It has cost her mother a small fortune.

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She's a single parent in working-class north Belfast who has saved for months to ensure her daughter has the best.

But the seven-year-old can't wait to get out of it. She has been bribed that if she wears the dress until the photos are taken, she can change back to her casual clothes the moment she gets home from the church.

Fast-forward two years, and it's a much more natural Lyra McKee. Shooting a basketball into the hoop Santa brought which is attached to the living room door.

She yells in delight as the ball falls in - warning Michael Jordan that he better watch out.

Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee

A few days later, she's singing the hits from Grease, complete with groovy dance moves, at a New Year's Eve family gathering. 'Happy Holidays 1999' the video is marked.

There is no happiness any more in the McKee home, and the family wonder if there ever will be again.

The mantelpiece is lined with sympathy cards, and there are boxes - correspondence from people across the world who didn't know the 29-year-old journalist but who read her story and were deeply moved.

It's just eight weeks since Lyra was shot dead by the New IRA during a riot in Derry.

She was standing in a crowd near a PSNI Land Rover when a bullet - fired at the vehicle - hit her in the head.

Watching the family video of two decades earlier brings some comfort to the McKees.

There's more recent footage, though, that they can barely bring themselves to watch.

Lyra, just minutes away from death, filming the rioters from a safe distance behind police lines. Totally unaware of the horror that awaits her.

Friends of murdered journalist Lyra McKee begin a three-day peace walk from Belfast to Derry. Photo: Rebecca Black/PA Wire
Friends of murdered journalist Lyra McKee begin a three-day peace walk from Belfast to Derry. Photo: Rebecca Black/PA Wire

Mobile phone recordings posted on social media don't show her actually being shot but you can hear the anguished screams of someone beside her when she's hit, and then see her lying on the side of the road.

"We just want to be able to rewind the tape. To reach in and pull her out. To change her decision to go to watch the riot with her friends," says Lyra's sister Nichola McKee Corner.

"Lyra was never at a riot in her life. We grew up on the peaceline in north Belfast with all sorts happening but our mummy wouldn't let us across the door when there was trouble. It is just so hard to accept that this happened to her." Lyra Catherine McKee was the youngest of five children. She was "the wee late one", with her siblings between 10 and 20 years older. Nichola was 15 when Lyra came into the world. She felt almost like a second mother to her sister. "I was excited when she was born, I wouldn't wait for the grown-ups to take us to the hospital. I ran all the way down on my own," she recalls.

"She was premature and tiny. I saw those big eyes in that wee face and I just adored her." When baby Lyra came home, Nichola would wheel her up and down the road in her navy blue polka dot pram.

Lyra battled against the odds for much of her life. As a baby she had a blood disorder and was plagued by infections.

A hearing difficulty caused language problems. She hated school and was dragged there "kicking and screaming". She was put in reading recovery, and failed the 11-plus.

Yet, despite it all, Lyra fell in love with books and discovered a talent for writing. As a teenager she was bullied by some classmates after confiding she was gay. But, aged 16, she went to Belfast Technical College where she "met other teenagers who also hadn't fitted in with their peers and, together, they all fitted in", Nichola says.

Lyra became a freelance journalist. She found many doors shut in her face in Northern Ireland but she had work published in this newspaper, The Atlantic, Private Eye, and BuzzFeed.

Her book on the 1981 IRA murder of Ulster Unionist MP the Rev Robert Bradford, Angels With Blue Faces, will be published this week. She had also signed a two-book deal with Faber, which included The Lost Boys, an investigation into the disappearance of children in Belfast in the 1970s.

Lyra had moved to Derry in February to live with her girlfriend Sara but she still returned for part of the week to Belfast, where she was the main carer for her disabled mum Joan (68) who had lost a leg.

Nichola says: "There is nothing she wouldn't have done for mum. Lyra had to juggle caring for her with her journalism.

"I can't imagine any other young journalist here trying to make a career while shouldering such a responsibility.

"Lyra brought mum shopping, made sure she took all her tablets, organised her medical appointments, and there were countless visits to A&E at all hours of the night.

"Mum was suffering from severe dizziness and was sleeping downstairs while we waited for a vertical lift to be installed at home. The night before she was killed, Lyra was up every half hour to check mum was OK. They just lived for each other."

On the morning of April 18, Lyra took her mother out to buy groceries and meet relatives. That afternoon she returned to Derry where she was going to a Slimming World meeting.

Later that night Nichola received a phone call to say Lyra had been injured in a riot.

"I was told she had been hit on the head and had been taken to Altnagelvin Hospital by police," she says.

"I thought she'd been hit by a brick or bottle and needed a few stitches in A&E. I was preparing to drive up. I was ready to tell her off for going to a riot in the first place. It was so out of character. She normally avoided anywhere that there was even a chance violence could arise.

"She didn't like going out to clubs at night because she thought there could be too much aggressive behaviour there."

Nichola says that in a second telephone conversation she was told Lyra was being worked on by medical staff and there was a lot of blood.

"I knew then that I had to wake mummy, that Lyra might die," she recalls.

"It was about 11pm but I got her up and into the car. I was in the street when another call came and I spoke to the police. The officer said he was very sorry but Lyra hadn't survived.

"I just stood in the street and I screamed and screamed and screamed.

"I couldn't breathe. All our family were by now arriving over. Inside the house everybody was wailing.

"We set off for the hospital. That 90-minute drive to Derry was awful. It was a foggy night and the journey seemed to take forever. There were so many broken hearts in that car."

Nichola was taken to the room in A&E where Lyra lay on a bed. "She didn't look dead. She looked like she was asleep. There was a tiny mark under her eye and a little blood on her head," she says. "I was told I couldn't touch her as the police still had to do forensics. That was so hard. I wanted to hold her hand, to hug her, to kiss her.

"But I had to sit there and not do any of that. So I talked to her. I said: 'Come on now, Lyra. Everyone's here. Wake up!' But of course she didn't."

From the footage, the New IRA gunman who killed Lyra is clearly very young.

"I can't believe that anybody would have so little respect for human life that they'd take a gun out in such circumstances and fire in the direction of a crowd," Nichola says.

"Lyra wasn't the only person standing beside the police Land Rover. There were others there too. It was my sister who was hit but it could have been anybody's sister, it could have been the gunman's own sister."

She doesn't believe he set out to murder and she repeats her offer to accompany him to a PSNI or Garda station if he hands himself in. "I don't think he intended to kill that night. I believe he went out trying to make a statement for show by firing those shots, to be picked up by the media," she says. "But his foolishness and recklessness turned him into a killer.

"I'm appealing to him again to do the right the thing. There is a glimmer of goodness in everybody. Look into your heart.

"But he is not the only person involved in this. There are others, maybe family members, who washed or destroyed his clothes, who hid evidence. They are part of the cover-up. They are preventing justice.

"I'm asking them to think again. To examine their consciences and consider how they'd feel if a member of their family was murdered in the same circumstances."

The only comfort is that Lyra appears to have died instantly "that she didn't suffer any pain, that she wasn't lying there on the street conscious and scared".

Lyra was planning to marry Sara in 2021 in Co Donegal because same-sex marriage is illegal in Northern Ireland.

Nichola, who is an officer at Belfast Spiritualist Church, says she was due to officiate at the wedding.

"I was thrilled when I was asked. We were delighted that Lyra was marrying Sara. She was very happy and we were happy that she had found someone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with," she says.

Lyra was a strong supporter of same-sex marriage but her siblings are "disconcerted" by the focus on one aspect of her life. "Lyra is being presented as an activist. That is not how we saw her," Nichola says.

"She supported and wrote about many causes - homelessness, refugees, the plight of young people taking their own lives.

"One thing she supported should not be elevated above all others. Lyra was not political.

"She did not go through a tick box list before she made friends. She was friends with people who supported equal marriage, and she was friends with people who didn't.

"She respected other people's opinions and it wasn't a problem if they disagreed with her. She hated cliques of all sorts. She was the living embodiment of inclusivity.

"If you were a good person, that was enough for Lyra. She didn't check your label."

Nichola says the family would prefer if others didn't use Lyra's name in the campaign for same-sex marriage.

"Our family are very supportive of LGBTQ rights," she says. "We believe there should be equal marriage. But we would appreciate if others didn't ask for it to be done in memory of Lyra. Her death, and the campaign for marriage equality, are two entirely different matters and shouldn't be linked."

Nobody has so far been charged with Lyra's killing, and Nichola believes the sole focus should be on bringing those responsible before the courts.

She says: "In her journalism, my sister specialised in cold cases - the unsolved murders of the Troubles. Lyra didn't just set out to tell what happened.

"She wanted truth and justice for the victims.

"It is surreal that she is now one of the stories that she would be investigating.

"I can just see her pulling back the layers, wanting to unwrap it all and get to the core."

Since Lyra's death, hundreds of people have contacted the family with stories of the 29-year-old and how important she was in their lives.

"I've met lots of Lyra's friends that I didn't know," Nichola says. "They are fantastic, kind and supportive people. There have been so many lovely tributes to my sister. The mural in Belfast city centre is superb and we are very appreciative.

"But ultimately, we don't want these things and we don't want these people. We just want Lyra back. Our hearts are broken into a million pieces. We miss her so much.

"She could phone me three or four times in one evening.

"I still expect her to ring or text. Every day we pray that this is an extended nightmare and we'll wake up in the morning and she'll be with us."

Nichola says that her mother is struggling hugely with Lyra's death.

"She said to me yesterday: 'Will this pain ever go away?' I was honest. I said: 'No mum, I don't think it will."

Belfast Telegraph

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